Halloween as the Festival of Fear

I have a kid who loves haunted houses. She went with a group of her classmates to the local very-scary haunted event this year, and one of her friends sheepishly exited just a few minutes in. I was sympathetic. I’d happily pay the price of admission for the privilege of not enduring half an hour in the corridors of horror.

And yet, witness the part where I drove my child to and from the event, I have no qualms whatsoever about the spooky parts of Halloween, and that is today’s topic.

Fear is Your Friend

Years ago No Fear was the marketing slogan slapped on the back windshields of pick-up trucks, and lately Faith Not Fear has been showing up on church signs. Both are symptoms of hubris and foolishness; our Lord’s dread at His pending crucifixion seems to be the definitive statement that it is normal and healthy to fear horrible things.

Fear can be disordered, as with any emotion. If you are afraid of harmless things, that’s something to work on. If you are not afraid of harmful things, that, too, is something to be addressed. A healthy, functional fear-system alerts you to potential threats, awakening your senses and urging you to proceed with caution.

Thus, the more vulnerable you are, the more likely you are to be spooked by some circumstance that turns out to be entirely harmless. That, too, is healthy: The more vulnerable you are, the more cautious you need to be, because you have fewer back-up strategies in the face of danger.

When we find ourselves in a scary situation, the healthy response is to take steps to make ourselves more safe. In bad weather, we slow down on the interstate. Late at night, we verify the identity of the person knocking at the door before we open. Before heading off into the woods, we tell someone where we’ll be going and when to expect us back.

Sometimes we let our friends talk us into taking a poor risk. The resulting uneasiness we feel is our common sense rightly rebuking our (hopefully temporary) stupidity.

Because we are not omniscient, sometimes we will experience fear when we are in no danger at all. Still, the rational response to a sense that something dangerous could be afoot is to carry out a plan to mitigate that danger. After the fact, sometimes people will think it’s foolish or silly to take have taken precautions in a situation where our fears turned out to unfounded; well, if you knew were in no danger, then yes, you were being silly — but did you know that? Probably not. That’s why your fear system was shouting at you to be careful.

So. Back to Halloween.

Saintliness Doesn’t Mean Fearlessness

On All Saints Day, November 1, we honor and give thanks for the many, many people who lived heroic lives for Jesus Christ. All of them dealt with fear of genuine dangers, and all of them showed fortitude in the face of those dangers.

Some faced the horrors of torture and martyrdom. Some faced the misery of loneliness and rejection when they were mocked for following God’s call in their life. Some lived quiet lives of faith, setting aside the natural doubts that plague us all in order to live and die in confidence of the Lord’s loving mercy and promise of eternal life for all who love Him.

Saints are people who were brave. Bravery isn’t fearlessness; bravery is doing what you need to do despite your real and valid fears.

So it is fitting that on All Saints Eve we playfully and joyfully face our fears.

Playing at Bravery Builds Bravery

When my daughter and her friends went through the haunted maze on a dark night in the middle of the countryside, they were never in any danger. The sets were scary, but they were fake. The actors were intimidating, but it said right on the waiver that at no point would an actor harm you in any way. Scary music is just noise. The whole thing was nothing but a game of pretend.

Still: It’s a valuable game of pretend. Sooner or later, every one of those kids has to face terrifying situations. Sometimes it will be physical danger; sometimes it will be the pain of an awful relationship; sometimes it will be the daunting prospects of acquiring a profession and making a living. The experience of having been scared witless in a safe setting builds up the ability to cope with other fears.

Haunted houses aren’t for everyone though — certainly they aren’t for me. No thanks. What are other Halloween activities that prepare us for a heroic life?

Children dress up as the people they admire — astronauts or disney princesses — and for an evening they put on the virtues of their heroes. Adults make fun of political figures, news events — all those monsters we can’t control.

Creepy decorations and devilish costumes, rightly used, teach us that we need not quake at the mere sight of something that gives us pause. We can overcome our natural revulsion and carry on.

Trick-or-Treating is the act, meanwhile, of finding out that your community has your back — that you have a network of people who wish you well and want good things for you in your life. In the face of real-life dangers, other people are the go-to resource.

You Can Do Halloween Wrong

Evil is real, and the humans are capable of it. If your Halloween is spent glorifying sin, you’re doing it wrong. People who take advantage of the annual festivities to harm others are the anti-Halloween. That people abuse the holiday, however, does not negate its right use.

It’s the eve of All Saints, and the feast — even among non-Christians — is rightly ordered towards a joyful exulting in our ability as humans to face down darkness.

File:Osteolaemus tetraspis - Karlsruhe Zoo 01.jpg
Photo: Dwarf Crocodile, Osteolaemus tetraspis, via Wikimedia, CC 3.0. If you don’t think crocodiles are creepy, something is wrong with you.

Book Review: 101 Ways to Evangelize by Susan Windley-Daoust

Susan Windley-Daoust is a theology professor, spiritual director, and now Director of Missionary Discipleship for the Diocese of Winona-Rochester. She graciously sent me a review copy of her new book 101 Ways to Evangelize: Ideas for Helping Fearless, Fearful, and Flummoxed Catholics Share the Good News of Jesus Christ, and having read it, I can give it unqualified “buy” recommend.*

Since my evangelization book covers similar ground, what I’d like to do with this review is explain how the two books fit together and who would benefit from each. (If you’re curious, SWD’s review of my book is here.)

Book cover image: Jesus Christ as a puzzle, mostly put together but with a few pieces still to go.
Cover art: 101 Ways to Evangelize by Susan Windley-Daoust

Overview of 101 Ways to Evangelize

Susan Windley-Daoust’s book is a compact, quick read, forty pages cover-to-cover. In it she provides a brief five-page introduction to the importance of evangelization and what evangelization is, and then launches into a well-organized series of sections that, combined, list 101 specific evangelizing activity ideas.

If you are familiar with the stages evangelization and discipleship laid out in Sherry Weddell’s seminal work Forming Intentional Disciples, the 101 suggestions are outreach ideas geared primarily towards people in the Curiosity, Openness, and Seeking stages of coming to Christ.

Image: The five thresholds: Trust, Curiosity, Openness, Seeking, Intentional Discipleship.  Ideas in the book relate primarily to Curiosity, Openness, and Seeking.
Screenshot of Amazon preview showing where the ideas for the book fit into the five thresholds of evangelization and discipleship.

The first three suggestions of the 101 ideas are preparatory work for any evangelizing activity; the remainder are outreach or ministry ideas that can be done by parish groups, by street evangelization apostolates, or by individuals.

Each suggestion is very specific, such as “praying with college students before exams” or “free clinics, or referrals for free healthcare.” The suggestions cover a wide range of types of missionary activity covering all the physical and spiritual works of mercy. Most of the 101 suggestions get a paragraph of explanation, but where needed, there’s longer discussion including caveats and alternative formats.

Who’s the perfect audience for 101 Ways to Evangelize?

This mini-book is ideal for parish groups or individuals who are sold on the idea of evangelization, raring to go, and are looking for inspiration during the brainstorming process. For a ministry leader, this is a book that you can hand to the members of your group, perhaps ask them to focus on a few particularly relevant sections, and quickly build enthusiasm and a consensus on where to get started.

To assist with this, the companion site Creative Evangelization offers a variety of support resources. At Gracewatch, you can purchase the book in bulk in various formats, including a PDF with license to print.

101 Ways to Evangelize vs. The How-to Book of Evangelization

Inexplicable though it seems to me, I am wiling to entertain possibility that some readers of this blog don’t actually want to collect every single book on evangelization that they can. So here’s the run down of how the two books compare.

The How-to is a massive, bird’s-eye view of the entire process of evangelization and discipleship, from trust-building through sending out new disciples as evangelizers themselves. In contrast, 101 Ways provides a snapshot of the why and how of evangelization, and then focuses on generating ideas for specific evangelizing activities.

101 Ways has loads of ideas for street evangelization and parish outreach events. The How-to does include some sample activities, but is more focused on explaining the principles and strategy behind how parish evangelizing works in different contexts. I would definitely pick up 101 Ways if you are specifically looking for outreach ideas, because that’s 99% of what the book is, and Susan Windley-Daoust has not played in coming up with suggestions.

The How-to is big. 300 pages big. It’s a better choice for people who either want to learn about the topics outside the scope of 101 Ways, or who want to dig deeper into why different types of evangelizing activities work the way that they do. For many people in your parish, 101 Ways will be a better fit: It’s short, quick, and action-oriented.

If you’re in parish leadership charged with some aspect of making big-picture decisions about parish strategy, you want The How-to, because it will help you understand how different aspects of evangelization and discipleship fit together. It will help you make strategic decisions, and it will help you communicate with parishioners by giving you the words you need to explain how xyz ministry fits into the big picture.

But when it is time to mobilize the troops, 101 Ways will be a much better book for parishioners who aren’t big readers and who just want to get moving on outreach-oriented activities and events.

101 Ways is smaller and cheaper than The How-to. Oh, come on, we all know that matters!

For your personal needs, it’s just a question of what type of book you want and what kind of content you’d like to read. For a parish purchase, I’d say that The How-to is the one you give to your ministry heads, that you stock a copy or two in the parish library for people to borrow as-desired, and that you might purchase a dozen copies to be re-used with study groups over the years. In contrast, 101 Ways is the one you purchase in bulk for everyone in the parish, stick in the literature rack, or leave in the hymnal holders in the pews for people to peruse and perhaps prayerfully consider for inspiration.

Is one book better than the other?

Nope. Two different books for two different needs. You can read the samples at Amazon, but I’d say both of us have a similar style in terms of readability. We’re both coming from the same school of thought in terms of what evangelization is and how it’s done.

If you read 101 Ways to Evangelize and your appetite is whetted and you want to learn more about the huge topic that is evangelization and discipleship, check out my book. In contrast, if you loved my book, you’re all inspired by the conclusion and now you are raring to go, you’ll like 101 Ways to Evangelize for the many, many, many different specific outreach ideas to get you started.

It’s a win-win.

***

*You might wonder why my reviews on this blog are overwhelmingly positive. Very simple: If it’s not a good book, I don’t waste my time on it. In order to get reviewed here, a book has to (a) be interesting and well-written enough to entice me to read the whole thing, and (b) be of sufficient value to my readers that it’s worth my taking an hour to put together a review. I read, or begin to read, plenty of books that never manage to clear both those hurdles.

Book Review: Thus Sayeth the Lord by Julie Davis

Cover art for Thus Sayeth the Lord: A Fresh Take on the Prophets by Julie Davis, courtesy of Our Sunday Visitor

Longtime readers know that I am a hardcore Julie Davis fan, so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of her latest book, Thus Sayeth the Lord: A Fresh Take on the Prophets. Though it took me far too long to get this review together, I can give it an unqualified buy-recommend.

What it is: An introduction to the Biblical prophets, including both those we think of as “the prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) and personages like Moses, Miriam, Anna, and Simeon who served as prophets though they are not authors of one of the prophetic books. The survey doesn’t cover every single prophet in the Bible, but it does hit enough of the major and minor players to be considered a thorough initial look.

What’s inside: For each prophet, there are suggested Bible readings either authored by the prophet, or telling essential parts of that prophet’s life. Julie explains in conversational terms an overview of the person’s work, including wading into any common misunderstanding or controversies. Finally she concludes the chapter with reflections on how we ordinary readers can relate to or be inspired by the prophet’s life, regardless of where we are in our relationship with God.

What makes this book especially good: Julie writes the book from the perspective of a former atheist, of a faithful-but-normal Catholic, and as someone engaged for decades now in a constant two-way conversation with the wider culture. You can tell that she really understands how people struggle with the faith and what it’s like to be looking at Christianity and scratching your head and wondering if the Catholic faith has anything, at all, to offer somebody like you.

Her depth and breadth of experience shows on every page, and the end result is a book that is exquisitely suited to parish Bible study groups, where participants may vary from curious-non-believers to earnest disciples, all thrown together in one classroom to puzzle out what can be a very daunting topic.

Who’s it for? I recommend this book for:

  • Teenagers and up. This book is ideal for youth groups because there is no expectation of a particular level of faith.
  • Individual or group study. It’ll work very well either way.
  • People who appreciate the informal, conversational tone.
  • Beginner to intermediate level students.

What the book is not: This is not an exhaustive study, nor is it written in a formal, academic style. For me as someone who’s been reading the Bible more or less daily for about two decades, but who is not a Bible scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I found that every chapter included information or perspectives that were new to me, and insights that were inspiring to me as a long-time disciple. Julie has done her research, and she digs into quite a few “everybody knows” truisms and provides solid answers pulled from reputable scholars. –> If you are already that scholar or already reading the scholarly resources yourself, you may be inspired by the personal application portion of each chapter, but I hope you already have mastered the basic knowledge base.

Can an average Jane or Joe lead a study on this book? Absolutely. Julie’s done your homework for you, so your only prep would be to read the chapter and read the recommended Bible passages. She takes care of the fact-finding, and then provides ample fodder for discussion on a more spiritual level, so your main job will be facilitating the conversation among members of your study group, focused primarily on their personal response to the reading.

Final verdict: This is a fantastic offering that fills a void in the Bible-study literature. I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a readable, down-to-earth introduction to the prophets that is a balanced combination of Bible study and reflections for personal inspiration and spiritual growth.

This book has earned a permanent spot in my library and is now in my queue for next time I am tasked with leading a Bible study.

Other Julie Davis books I have reviewed:

You can’t go wrong with any of these.


Obtuse to the Point of Dishonesty

I’ve been listening with interest to ACB’s confirmation hearings not only for the entertaining legal back-and-forth, but because my state senator — up for re-election this fall — is chairing the proceedings.

I did not come into the hearings planning to vote for Graham. However, nothing in what I have heard from him (full disclosure: I’ve listened to perhaps as much as 50% of the last three days’ hearings, but nowhere close to the entirety) has been objectionable. You may or may not care for his politics or his pushing through a nominee so close to an election, especially in light of his previous pledge not to do so (see: “integrity” below), but his behavior in the hearings themselves has been anodyne.

Meanwhile, separately, as part of my internal debate on how to vote in the senate race, I’ve of course had doubts about Jaime Harrison, Graham’s opponent, but primarily due to my usual objection to the Democratic platform: I think that protecting human lives is important, so running on a platform that openly supports the direct killing of innocent persons is a bit of a buzzkill for me. Still, I know many people who are in favor of legalized abortion for understandable (though mistaken) reasons, and so I didn’t automatically assume he lacked integrity based on that policy position alone.

Today, though, he proved that indeed he is not a person who cares about the truth.

I listened, live, to the exchange between Senator Graham and Judge Barrett which Harrison claims is proof that Graham spoke favorably of segregation. No listener fluent in the English language could mistake Graham’s plain meaning. He was in no way saying that he himself thought segregation was good. His point, very clear from the context and the plain meaning of the exchange, was that returning to segregation is so unthinkable that there is no chance the Supreme Court will be asked to revisit Brown vs. Board of Education.

None of this means that Senator Graham is a desirable candidate. But Harrison’s determination to willfully misunderstand the exchange tells us that in fact Harrison is just fine with lying about someone if it suits his purposes.

Not a good feature in a senator, and not a good feature in anybody. Don’t be like this. Insist on supporting your point of view with the truth.

Fox in the snow, yawning with it's tongue curled.

Fox photo via Wikimedia, CC 4.0. Hot tip: Subscribing to @hourlyfox on Twitter was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I would be sympathetic if that were the only account you followed at all.

A T-Shirt for the Weeks Ahead

Whether you’ve got a favorite shortlisted justice you are rooting for, or just want to remind the world that court appointments shouldn’t require religious tests, you can still get “The Dogma Lives Loudly Within Me” t-shirts. Proceeds fund the maintenance costs of the Catholic Conspiracy’s website.

FYI, I just placed an order, and can attest that a quick search for coupon codes is worth the effort.  Also, when in doubt size up.  Click around a bit if there’s a style you are looking for and can’t quite find, because sometimes the “display all” doesn’t really truly display *all*.  Um, I dunno. Could’ve been me.

Just saying: Don’t give up on your dreams too quickly, when it comes to your perfect t-shirt for telling the world “I’m Catholic and also maybe I like C-SPAN too much.”

 

The Dogma Lives Loudly Within Me t-shirt

Photo of the perfect shirt if you’re one of *those* Catholics courtesy of CafePress.

Custody of the Eyes, Revisited

Today’s topic is not a newsflash, but there might be someone out there who could benefit from hearing it again, this time with a little common-sense consolation thrown in.

***

So I’ve been running experiments on myself, and can confirm: Custody of the eyes works wonders.

You may recognize the term from chastity talks. For some of you, your introduction to the term was not during a kind of chastity talk you found very edifying; others may have had the opposite experience.  Anyhow, we aren’t talking about sex today.  Not even one bit.  Deep breath.

***

If you’re new to the term, “custody of the eyes” means taking steps to avoid leading yourself into temptation.  It refers specifically to choosing not to look at things that tempt you, but the concept expands to all the senses, physical and otherwise.

What kinds of things, other than sex since we are not talking about sex, might be tempting?

  • Eating that one kind of chips in the variety pack that your kids weirdly don’t like, even though they are the best flavor, and doing that eating despite the fact that there is no medical evidence your body would benefit, for any reason whatsoever, from eating another such chip again in your life.
  • Arguing manically with your beloved internet friend who is usually awesome, but happens to be horribly, horribly wrong about something. In your opinion.
  • Buying that perfect wardrobe item that you do not need because your closet is already full of other good-enough shoes and clothes and hats, ahembut it’s a really good deal and it is so cute/practical/snazzy/fantabulous, but seriously: You don’t need it, and that money would do more good applied someplace else.

Perhaps you face other temptations as well.  They could be temptations to do something that is always sinful under all circumstances, or they could be temptations that are sinful only because of how they affect you personally (example: a calmer spirit might be able to discuss that contentious issue without getting worked up into a frenzy), or they could be temptations that aren’t objectively sinful at all (buying that hat, if it’s part of your responsibly-budgeted splurge fund, and also it’s an awesome hat), but which sabotage your other, better goals.

We aren’t, on that last point, talking today about scrupling, where you obsessively worry that some harmless action is gravely sinful.  We’re just saying: For whatever reason you’ve determined that xyz action is not the way you want to live . . . and yet you’re tempted to do it anyway.

Enter one tool to include in your spiritual toolbox: Custody of the eyes.

***

“Custody of the eyes” means you take steps to change the way you are living in order to not be as tempted as you otherwise might be.  In emergency-mode, it means that if you’re walking past the hat store, look the other way.  My, what fabulous road work the city is doing this morning!

But you don’t want to live in emergency-mode all the time.

This is what it’s like living in the land of temptation, true story:

  • You’ve determined, for good, sound, scientific reasons, that you would be happier and healthier if you did not eat the chips.  Not the lousy chips, and not the fabulous flavor of chips that your children weirdly do not eat, even though the manufacturer has so generously included them in the variety pack that is the best price at your local mass-market merchant.
  • 99% of the time, you are able to practice amazing willpower! You walk by the chips, sitting out on the kitchen shelf where your children can easily access their school lunch supplies, and you don’t even think about grabbing just one tiny bag of chips even this once.
  • Alas, given enough minutes/hours/days/months, you must run the chip-gauntlet 100 times. Your 99% success rate in avoiding temptation is not quite enough.

You don’t need to beat yourself up over this.  It’s a tiny bag of chips.  You aren’t allergic.  They aren’t actually made of poison, despite the inflammatory rhetoric you read on that one healthy-eating website.  It’s fine. But why live this way?  Why constantly add to your already busy day that mental struggle?  You want to eat fewer chips because you are certain you’ll be happier and healthier that way, and yet having to constantly look at the chips and make yourself not eat them isn’t exactly filling you with joy.

You don’t have to choose between those two fates.

You can put the chips in your teenager’s ancient minivan and instruct her to take them to school and give them to her friends — the ones who have the sense to know what the good flavors are, thanks.

***

Practicing strategic avoidance is life-changing.

When you make small changes to reduce the number of times in a day you have to battle against yourself, you free up so much energy for other efforts.

When you don’t or can’t make those changes — we aren’t in control of the whole world and all that happens around us — you are left working harder to accomplish less.

So let’s talk about a healthy philosophy of can’t.

***

You are not the supreme ruler.

In your life there are many things you can control.  Maybe you can change your route to not walk past the hat store.  Maybe you can uninstall the social media app that’s always sucking you into the outrage machine.  Maybe you can move the deep freezer with the kids’ ice cream in it out of your new library in the old garage and down the hall to the laundry room you don’t visit nearly so often (sorry kids, I am not your ice cream bank; readers, we’ll discuss my laundry backlog some other time).

But you cannot necessarily always make the change you wish you could.

You might be able to convince your colleagues not to put the snack tray out in the hallway next to your desk, but maybe you can’t.

You might be able to automate some of the social media work you do, but maybe it’s impossible to carry out your career in a communications industry without actually, go figure, communicating with people.

You might be able to drop catalogs into the recycle bin without ever looking at them, but maybe you also have to sometimes purchase necessary items, and you really can’t help that the best vendor also sells hats.

You probably face a mixed bag of struggles.  Whether you’re working through serious addictions or just trying to live a somewhat more tranquil life, there is only so much reorganizing of your life that you can do.

Do the amount of temptation-reducing that you can, of course.  Be creative. Be willing to take drastic measures if you’re struggling with a danger to your spiritual, emotional, or physical health.

After that? Give yourself credit for the battles that are still left.

***

Living your life in emergency-mode temptation-fighting is exhausting.  If your choice is, for example, paying the bills by going to that job with the perpetual snack tray always sitting out, or serenely sinking into bankruptcy due to unemployment, you have to go do the job.  You have to spend all day passing the snack tray and telling yourself no and walking quickly and trying not think about it.

That stinks.

It’s hard work.

Realistically you are not going to have as much emotional energy for other spiritual activities after you’ve put so much willpower into avoiding the snacks as best you can using the only tool available to you at this time.

Acknowledge it.

Acknowledge that at this time in your life, you are running a spiritual marathon ten hours a day.  By fighting the good fight you are getting stronger — even if one time in a hundred you pass the snack table and cave — but you are getting stronger by working out.  Just like physical exercise, the spiritual and emotional exercise of resisting temptation is tiring.

Your capacity for that work can grow, but it can’t be instantly expanded to infinity.

So if your circumstances are such that you must constantly battle temptations you can find no way to avoid, applaud yourself for the work you are doing.

***

And of course, final note for those readers who aren’t presently dealing with this kind of practical struggle . . .

If you have been blessed with a low-temptation lifestyle, avail yourselves of the three pillars of the spiritual exercise regimen: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Otherwise your soul will grow flabby for want of spiritual work.

Horses grazing in mountain pasture at Parco Naturale Tre Cime.

I was going to find a good hat picture to illustrate this post, but today’s Wikimedia Image of the Day is too beautiful to skip.  Photo of horses grazing in Parco Naturale Tre Cime by kallerna, CC 4.0.  Click through and scroll down for some related close-ups.

On Doing Evil that Good May Come of It (TLDR: Don’t)

So here’s something that happened yesterday: A guy who should have known better, a stalwart defender of virtue and reason, posted a video on Twitter of a group of tween girls dancing in an explicitly sexualized manner.

It was a long clip, to my memory (I’m not going to click on it again, so if my memory is faulty, we’re going to have to live with that) beginning with low-grade “this is not something I’d want my daughter doing.” Gradually the girls’ dancing became increasingly erotic, to the point that it definitely transitioned into “yes, this is blatantly, undeniably sexualized near-porn,” and I didn’t continue watching after that.

(The girls’ costumes, I should note, would have been fine as bathing suits, for children playing sharks-and-minnows or jumping off the diving board . . . but no amount of clothing could cause the dance this conservative Christian posted to be any other than erotic.)

Anyhow, that was my two minutes of previewing Cuties, a film I was willing to consider might not be nearly what Netflix promoted it as, and a film that I still suspect was attempting to be a serious entry in the discourse against the hypersexualization of tweens and young teens.  I even considered that the video this person-who-should-know-better posted was in fact a deepfake designed to hype up the political divide, though alas with a bit clicking around, the reports from those who viewed the film in its entirety confirm the dance sequence was genuine.  IMDB briefly posted a warning, in reference to another scene in the film, the FYI it was technically in violation of US child pornography laws.  Yikes.

So. We revisit a very old topic, and if you like, you can scoot on over to the The Junior Moral Theologian’s DIY Kit, where I lay out all the moral issues in more detail.  Here I’m just going to repeat myself a bunch of different ways:

You may not do evil that good may come of it.

Having a good intention does not make an evil action a good action.

The fact that something good resulted from an evil act does not make the evil act good.

This is the non-negotiable of any viable ethical system.  Might you find yourself in a horrible situation, in which you are forced to choose among several terrible options, and, in your desperation, choose the one with the least-bad outcome? Certainly.  It’s a fallen world and in the worst circumstances we might find ourselves doing the unthinkable.  It happens.

That does not make the evil action right.  It just makes it the thing you did at a time when you didn’t see any other way.

In the case of, say, a Christian commentator with a large following choosing to post erotica, or a secular filmmaker choosing to train and pay young girls to perform that erotica, we are not speaking of desperate persons forced into a corner and struggling to find any way out.

But, and let’s be very clear here, neither of these two is any different from the rest of us.

Both, we can charitably assume, are in fact seeking to accomplish something good.  The commentator was seeking to warn audiences that the film in question was morally objectionable. The director was seeking to warn audiences that the sexualization of young girls is a serious problem in our day — and before you scoff at that, I can attest from my viewing of the excerpt that the girls’ faces as they performed absolutely communicated a sense of being lost, of not understanding, of not liking, and yet of feeling like they had to do the thing in order to be approved.  The stated artistic goal was accomplished in the scene I saw.  The obvious (to you and me) problem, which makes the film unviewable for persons of good will who are duly forewarned, is that the director went about communicating her (valuable) message in a way that was, in fact, harmful to the girls working for her.

In the same way, the commentator who posted erotica in order to warn against erotica was exploiting the victimization of the girls, and also putting erotica in front of his readers, in the name of an otherwise good purpose.

The habit of using evil to do good is absolutely embedded in our culture.  

In theory we consider lying (that would be a direct, explicit violation of the Ten Commandments) wrong, but in reality our culture has long categories of lies that are acceptable because they are done with good purposes in mind.

If Catholics are wacko extremists on medical ethics, it’s because our society considers the killing of innocent persons to be only wrong if it’s done for unpopular reasons.

National Public Radio hosted a non-ironic, softball interview on the justification for the violent destruction and theft of the property of innocent persons.

I’d be remiss in this list not to mention the whole justifying of adultery as if the average man or woman just had “no choice” but forsake their vows? And yet people will say that, and think that, in the most banal of circumstances.

Maybe you aren’t guilty of any of these, or at least not lately.

Before you get too convinced you aren’t like those other sinners: I challenge you to try to get through a full week without doing something you know is wrong — even if it’s just a little bit wrong — with the motivation of seeking a higher good.

Sin is like this.  For most people, most of the time, sin is not fueled by a desire to do something horrible, it’s fueled by the twisted-up quest to experience something we’re convinced will be good.

“Less evil” is not good.

One of the reasons I expect it was so easy for the director of Mignonnes to justify her decision to pay young girls to perform erotica (and in one case, per IMDB’s original warning to viewers, to expose her breast on film) is that her film was about how normal these behaviors have become.

(FYI for those wondering: The acceptability of pornography is far more entrenched in respectable French society than in the United States.  That’s me reporting first hand experiences among the married-with-kids, stalwart-citizen, professional class of the late 1980’s.  Not something I read in a book.  What I have seen in real homes among people who met every definition of “respectable” in their era.)

The director of the film was not asking the girls to perform something forbidden and illegal (though Netflix should know that the reported frontal-nudity scene is in fact illegal in the US, however award-winning it may be elsewhere). She was asking them to recreate what persons like myself got accused of prudery for objecting to when it appeared at the Super Bowl half-time show this year — albeit in the wholesome USA we have adult women do this to show how “liberated” they are, while the girls from the dance companies, the very best girl-dancers, handpicked to perform on the field on the biggest TV night of the year, look up in adoration.  We reserve the actual girl-erotica for dance competitions on other weekends, thanks.  So, from the director’s point of view, she was requesting the girls repeat what they already were willing to do, and may well have done before, only this time framed in such a way that viewers would be shocked into realizing just how wrong and destructive it is.

That good intention doesn’t justify the evil.

And that’s a shame, because there’s every reason to believe the director was attempting to open a very important conversation on sexual exploitation — just like the commentator who posted the erotica was trying to legitimately warn viewers away from the film that fell so badly short of its mark.

Three girls dancing in a field, 1888: Paul Gauguin - Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven

Artwork: Paul Gaugin, Breton Girls Dancing (1888), via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Why Chadwick Boseman Earned a Statesman’s Honors in SC

I got aggravated this morning at a friend, a recent arrival in South Carolina from points north, who questioned why Governor McMaster ordered flags to fly at half-staff for Chadwick Boseman.  In her experience, such an honor is reserved for politicians and other government emissaries — would we lower the flag for xyz other locally-grown actor who is just as talented?

Rather than continue to lose my temper, I’ll take my own advice to catechists and just answer the question.

***

Before we begin, let me tell you about a spider bite.  My kid was ten and he went off to summer camp and he got some kind of nasty bite on the back of his leg — painful but which barely created a mark.  He’s a tough kid and decided to self-treat.

This was not the right move. When we picked him up in the morning at the end of the week, he could no longer hide the injury because it hurt so badly he couldn’t walk without limping.

The bite had become infected and created an abscess.  In the doctor’s office I got to lay my body across his flailing limbs so that the pediatrician could drain the wound while my son screamed in pain. It was a procedure that hurt but would in no way harm; failing to drain the wound, in contrast, could have led to sepsis and death.

Hold onto that image of a wound hidden beneath the surface, and its aftermath.

***

Two aspects of Chadwick Boseman’s life make him worthy of the governor’s attention.

The first is that that he’s from here. If he were nothing more than a small town boy who grew up to be a wildly successful, world-renown celebrity, that would be sufficient in the eyes of most state residents to count him as a local hero.  (See: James Brown). It would not, however, quite warrant lowering the flag at the statehouse.

The second reason, though, is that his life’s work touches South Carolina’s history in a profound and very personal manner.

***

You can read here a brief, informative summary of the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina. If you are a person who has the same question as my friend, please do that.  It won’t take you long.

Okay, thanks.

So.  Civil Rights in South Carolina is a big, big, big deal.  We’re gonna tell a story or two below about that.

Now observe: Chadwick Boseman’s filmography includes not just Marshall and 42, which serve to rectify the longstanding problem of whitewashed history in South Carolina schools, but also Black Panther.

Oh, that’s just a pop film about a comic book superhero who’s been around for decades? Here’s a personal essay from a fan who found the film to be far more meaningful than that.  Read it.  Try for a moment to understand how important Chadwick Boseman’s role was for many, many people, in a way that touches very keenly on South Carolina public life.

***

Here’s a personal story my mom, a white lady, told me a few years before she died.

Her father was from a small town in South Carolina not unlike Boseman’s hometown.  He was career Navy, so my mother grew up all over the United States. She attended authentically integrated schools in California (I have her yearbooks, the photos of staff and student life are unequivocal), and witnessed the first round of integration at her high school alma mater in Virginia.

In college, though, there was a particular class that made the civil rights movement deeply personal for her — not because of the stated subject matter of the class, but because of the way it was graded. The professor announced that everyone’s grade would hinge on their final paper or project, and he advised: “Do a project.  I have never given a passing grade on a paper.”

My mom, who was the epitome of conscientious her entire life, and for whom the prospect of failing a class was an absolute nightmare, found herself having to face an ugly reality: She stunk at projects.  She never, ever, succeeded at projects.  She knew (I don’t know why she was so convinced of this, but she was) that there was no way she could create an adequate project.  She could, on the other hand, write an excellent paper.

So she decided she would just write the paper, fail the class, and accept her doom.

The paper she wrote was about visiting the family farm in rural South Carolina.

***

My grandfather’s family was skin-in-the-game heroic.  His mother christened an aircraft carrier during the war, an honor she earned because six of her seven sons had all enlisted and were actively serving in the armed forces.  (The eldest stayed home to run the farm, necessary because their father had been killed, shot in the back down in town in front of everybody, back when his mother was pregnant with two youngest.)

They were also brutally prejudiced, and did not treat the Black laborers who worked the farm with the respect and dignity my mother (or you or I today) would consider the bare minimum of humane consideration.

My mom’s paper was about that.

It was about witnessing, as a young adult, just how intensely heartless was the deep-seated racism that punctuated daily life at her own family’s farm.

I don’t have my mother here to fact-check me, so rather than risk mistelling, here’s an example of an article about the kind of things that happened across the South:

Employers and white employees went out of their way to engage in what can only be termed the ritual humiliation of blacks. It was not enough to have separate bathrooms for blacks and whites; the “black” bathrooms were often located far from specific workplaces, forcing employees to spend a good deal of their break getting there and coming back. It was not enough to have separate water fountains for blacks and whites; the “black” fountains were never cleaned, and the water was always warm. Federal Compress (where bales of cotton were readied for textile mills) resisted installing electric fans, though black workers were sweltering in concrete buildings that approached 100 degrees. The owner of a Memphis dry-cleaner fired women employees rather than let them talk to one another on the job.

Google around, you can find plenty of stories.  Or just ask one of the many people still alive if they are willing to dredge up the worst of what went down in those times.

***

My mom’s professor read the paper, and called her into his office, and informed her that she had dared to do the one thing no on else had ever done in his long career as an educator: She earned an A on a paper.

Also: Her father read the paper and nearly disowned her.

He was livid.

He accused her of lying.

But he loved her and somehow they got over it.

***

Governor Henry McMaster is about the same age as my mom.

For him and for countless South Carolinians alive today, all the cruelty of segregation and Jim Crow is not some ancient mystic legend, it’s their formative years.  His political career, his party . . . that’s the party of Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, who locked up the state’s Senate seats so tight that even I am old enough to remember the years when there was only one candidate on the ballot because no one else bothered to run.

McMaster can remember the Confederate Flag going up at the state house.  Understand that I of the next generation am old enough to have been fully an adult when it finally came down again.  My children are old enough to remember when it was finally moved off the statehouse grounds altogether.

***

I don’t travel in the same circles as Governor McMaster, though we certainly have some acquaintances in common.  If you live in South Carolina, and you are white, and you are paying attention, at all, you will amass plenty of evidence that racism remains a serious problem.  You can tell not because of demographic statistics but because of the words that come out of people’s mouths.  Are they lying? Are they just pretending to be racist when they get a chance to express themselves privately in what they think is “safe” company?

But also, in a nation where African-American senators are thin on the ground, Hollings and Thurmond are both dead, and Tim Scott is the new face of the Republican establishment.

***

When I look at Kenosha or Minneapolis, what I see is my son’s spider bite.

Here in the South, we have entrenched racism. It is no secret. Everybody knows it, including a whole lot of outsiders who look down on us as backwards and stupid.

But here’s what Minneapolis and Kenosha are: They are places that also have entrenched racism.  If racism in South Carolina is a gaping wound, up north it turns out to have been an abscess festering beneath the surface. Pretending everything’s fine leads to crippling pain. Like my son screaming on the examining table in the doctor’s office, we’re discovering that ignoring the rot among the “progressive”  states only pushes off the day of reckoning and makes the inevitable confrontation far, far worse.

***

That’s not me saying Kenosha can’t happen in South Carolina.

Sure it can.

Lord willing, it won’t.

Chadwick Boseman is an ambassador of that hope.

***

What I think a lot of people don’t understand is that the legacy of racism is everyone’s history.

You can’t, like my grandfather wanted to do, pretend it’s not there.  That way leads to destruction.

***

So how does the work of Chadwick Boseman fit into state politics?  It’s a reasonable question.  Historically, one lowers the statehouse flag for persons with clear ties to the state: Deceased politicians; soldiers, firefighters, and police killed in the line of duty; victims of terrorist attacks and acts of war.  How does an actor fit into all that?

The actor fits in because his artistic legacy is in culturally ground-breaking work on the issue that has defined the history, economy, and politics of his home state since its founding.

***

Is it exciting and inspiring that a small-town boy could grow up to be a famous celebrity? Sure. The governor could be excused for making a nod to the masses in a contentious election year.

I don’t know Governor McMaster’s heart.  It’s entirely possible he’s just doing the politically expedient thing.  If so, God bless democracy: We have a politician who will do something right for no other reason than he wants to be re-elected.

But consider the possibility that McMaster fully comprehends Chadwick Boseman’s legacy for this state.  This is our guy.  He’s us.  He comes from here and he knew exactly how crucial it is that we deal with our state’s history — so much so that even though he was literally dying he pushed through to step out on the shoulders of giants and take us another step forward in the renewing and transforming of our culture.

Boseman’s work has been a work of healing for exactly the wounds that have torn apart his home state for generations.

So sure.  Statesman’s honors.  Well earned.

Charleston, SC George Floyd Protest : Backs of protesters on Calhoun Street, with a Black Lives Matter sign

Photo: Charleston, SC, May 2020,  courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0

Quick update for the same friend, who was questioning the legality of the governor’s decision:

SC 10-1-161 (E): “Upon the occurrence of an extraordinary event resulting in death or upon the death of a person of extraordinary stature, the Governor may order that the flags atop the State Capitol Building be lowered to half-staff at a designated time or for a designated period of time.”

A quick compendium of all SC laws relating to flying flags at half-staff is here.

On Handling Bad Situations Badly

Abusive behavior runs on a spectrum. On the far end are the cases so obvious and egregious that the hardest heart would have to admit abuse took place.  On the near end is the shift from ordinary bad behavior into what can reasonably be categorized as abuse.

The confusion arises when the behavior itself is comparatively mild — certain forms of violence or sexual acting out are always abuse. Over on the milder end of the spectrum, in contrast, we have to use discernment.  Some of the distinguishing characteristics of someone who is behaving poorly but not being abusive include:

  • Admitting to the bad behavior.
  • Apologizing in a sincere manner.
  • Accepting responsibility.
  • Making amends or reparations.
  • Showing a clear change to avoid the behavior in the future.

It’s important here to reiterate: No amount of resorting to an apology cycle can cause rape, molestation, beating, starvation, etc. to be non-abusive. But I want to talk about an aspect of life on the other end of the spectrum, where it is very, very easy for abusive behavior to be tolerated, excused, and even justified.

***

Several years ago my family was party to what ended up being low-level abusive behavior.  Ironically, the incident that sparked the subsequent abusive response was, as best I can tell, a case of someone making a poor judgment call under distressing circumstances, but with no intention of harm.

To give it an analogy, think about the near-drowning incident at our community pool. Obviously the lifeguard-on-duty in that story wasn’t doing his job as well as one would hope. We don’t know the reasons for that, but there is no evidence he was being willfully negligent or choosing to put a child in harm’s way — even if it turns out he just really stunk as a lifeguard.  That would be a bit like the triggering incident in the situation my family dealt with.

Where the abusive behavior came in was after.  Imagine if (and this did not happen at the pool in real life) the other witnesses of the near-drowning closed ranks and tried to pretend no rescue had been necessary.  Imagine if the manager of the pool had attempted to deny there was a problem.  Imagine if, faced with a fear of a lawsuit [we in no way considered such an action in the real event], the owners of the pool resorted to a variety of legal maneuvers to declaim all responsibility, and some of those moves involved blatant lies.

[Again, reiterating here: The pool example is an analogy. Nothing of the sort happened at the pool.  We’re doing a thought exercise to help you create a fictional scenario for the purposes of the message that follows.  I will observe that in both the real story and our fictionalized pool story that stands in for a real-life situation involving innocent people who deserve to have their privacy protected, no children ended up harmed.]

When we think of “abuse” we don’t think of these kinds of actions right away — we think of the battered spouse cowering in the corner with a bloody nose, or the child locked in the basement for days on end.  But abuse runs on a scale, and on the milder end of the spectrum, it often involves behaviors which, in a different circumstance, would not be abusive.

***

So.  On the milder end of the abuse spectrum, it is much easier for those engaging in the abusive behavior to pretend everything is fine. And, now I am getting to the message of this post, one of the ways those people will do it is to shift blame.

If you are going through a nasty divorce from an abusive spouse, you can expect the spouse to blame all your faults, and pick apart every tiny lapse in your managing the divorce in a less-than-saintly manner.  If you are dealing with an abusive professor, you can expect the professor to blame all your weaknesses as a student.  If you are dealing with a sexual abuser, you can expect that person to blame your clothing, your choice of friends, or your dubious morals. Blame-shifting is the language of abuse.

It is important to remind yourself that your failure to handle the situation absolutely perfectly in no way excuses the abuse.

***

By definition if you are dealing with a horrible situation, you are under duress.  It could be a horrible situation like the real pool incident, where no one in particular was to blame and yet still something bad (only nearly, in the real-life case, thank God) happened.  It could be a horrible situation where someone makes a terrible decision but does it without meaning harm.  It could be a horrible situation in which someone under pressure chooses the “easy way out” and throws someone else under the bus in the process. It could be a horrible situation where someone’s addictive behavior or mental illness causes them to harm others.  It could be a horrible situation in which a cold-blooded predator seeks to steal, kill, or destroy.

Regardless: It’s a horrible situation.

People in horrible situations don’t always handle themselves with impeccable poise.

If you cuss out the pool manager just ’cause, that’s on you.  If you cuss out the pool manager in a situation where the pool is evading responsibility for gross negligence that put a swimmer in danger?  Well, maybe you shouldn’t be cussing, but that doesn’t change the fact of the pool’s responsibility for its own operations.

[FYI: Proud to report I don’t think I cussed very much in the real pool incident.  I probably would have cussed if the pool had evaded responsibility, which they did not.  Also my kid turned out to be fine, so it was easy to move on.]

So that’s my message for the day: If you’re in a horrible situation, and other people want to blame their abusive behavior on your failure to respond in exactly the perfect manner, don’t let them.

***

People who respond poorly because you are angry, disorganized, or otherwise handling the situation badly?  If those people are not abusive, they will seek to work things out.  They will recognize their own part in the problem, they will make allowances for extenuating circumstances, and all they will ask is mutual forgiveness as the two of your move forward in solving the problem a better way.  That’s not abuse, that’s just human frailty.

Abusive people, in contrast, will find fault no matter how well or poorly you handle things from your end, they will persist in claiming their own innocence and blaming others, and they’ll do this as cover or justification for their abusive actions.

In our fictionalized pool incident, imagine I cussed out the manager, and the manager cussed me out back.  That’s just mutual bad behavior.  If we are both otherwise innocent, we could move on from that. We calm down, each apologize for our outbursts, and begin discussing what went wrong at the pool and how to rectify it.

Now imagine I cussed out the manager, and the manager stayed cool, calm, and collected, but also carefully put into place a set of legal evasions to avoid the pool’s real responsibility (whatever that was) for what had happened (however we imagine that in our fictional scenario).  The manager might say nothing about my bad behavior, or might blame me: “Obviously the pool is innocent! You can see by Mrs. Fitz’s temper tantrums this is a mentally unstable person!”

That’s how predators act to cover their tracks.

Don’t accept it.

Don’t second guess yourself.

Review the cold hard facts of the case: Did the predator engage in objectively dangerous actions?  Is the predator behaving in a deceitful manner to justify those actions?

If yes, that’s not on you.  Don’t let the predator blame-shift.

René Crevel. Affiche bal masqué: Art Deco style poster showing attendees at a masked ball.

Artwork: Poster for masked ball circa 1924, via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

More Background Info on “Cuties” (“Mignonnes”) at Netflix

UPDATE: Having seen a snippet of one of the more salient portions of the film, I can categorically recommend that you not view the film.  (Assuming what I saw, an excerpt shared on Twitter by someone who should have known better than to post such a thing, was in fact taken from the film and not a deepfake. )

Whatever the artistic merits of the film may be overall, based on what I viewed the film violates the fundamental rule decency: If the only way you can film the shot is for the actors to do on camera (which means doing in front of the crew) what they ought not be doing in front any audience, ever, then you are not a director who cares about the well-being of your actors.

–> Find a different way to shoot the scene.

I will update again if I learn that the pertinent excerpt circulating is not from the film, but at first glance it appears genuine.

2nd Update: A little more research confirms that what I saw (excerpted on Twitter) is what multiple reviewers saw when watching the original film.  The film also includes, per a warning at IMDB now taken down, a scene which meets, unequivocally, the definition of child pornography per US law.  Not sure why Netflix isn’t being charged.  No shortages of witnesses.

Interesting side note: My Twitter account is set to hide “sensitive content” which results in all kinds of innocent media being hidden from my view unless I choose to click through — most memorably the time Twitter felt that the view of a priest praying at Mass was, it seems, too risky for tender eyes.  (Um.  It was just some priest.  At Mass.  Doing normal priest things.)  In contrast, I did not have to choose to click on the excerpt of the young girls dancing lasciviously, Twitter did not find that to be “sensitive content” at all. Hmmn.

***

The French film Mignonnes is (rightfully) causing a stir after Netflix ran a provocative publicity campaign and then failed to care very much that decent people don’t approve of sexualizing eleven-year-olds.

If you are looking for more information on the film, pull out Google Translate and get ready for a set of unsatisfying-but-enlightening answers:

Because none of the reviews include spoilers, I can’t give a final verdict (without having seen the film) on exactly where the director takes this.  But here, I think, are the key pieces of info for readers of this blog:

#1 It is in no way a film for children. Don’t let the promotional materials fool you.

#2 Maïmouna Doucouré is telling her own story, and (more below on this) the story of many girls growing up in France (and the US — all over the world, I suspect) today.  For her, the reality is one of coming from a strict, traditionalist, polygamous Muslim family where women were treated as sexual objects and forced into relationships that did not respect their dignity as human beings.  So when Netflix sets up a lazy conflict between “religious family” and the hypersexualized dance world into which Amy, the young protagonist, is pulled, it is important for Catholics and other parents of good will to understand that Amy, like Ms. Doucouré, is not coming from a sane, healthy, dignifying religious background.

–> A major early plot point is that Amy’s mother is charged with organizing the wedding of her still-husband to his second wife, and Amy’s grandmother is aggressively insisting that Mom do her duty and shut up and put up, this is how things are. For the purposes of this film (not the purposes of its promoters or the wider non-immigrant culture receiving it), tween conflict over family-of-origin’s “religion” is not a case of garden-variety boredom with the parent’s conventional, anodyne religious practices as familiar to readers growing up in most of western society.

2nd Update: In this video interview, near the end when asked what she’s viewed lately that made the most impression on her, Ms. Doucouré says with obvious enthusiasm the Swedish television drama Kalifat.  I think it’s a particularly good insight into her own worldview as a director — what she finds resonates with her in other productions out there right now.

#3 The problem of young girls being pressured into hypersexualized dance movement and attire is widespread. How widespread?  Longtime readers may remember my answering this question. Let me emphasize the setting of that question: We are talking about upper middle class (you have to be affluent to afford dance team), religiously-affiliated suburban professional families in one of the most religiously-conservative cities of the Bible Belt, and the question was posed by a guy who knows the family through church.  I cannot emphasize how many times I’ve been party to discussion among nice Catholic moms wondering what to do about the slutty dance routine problem.  Parents rearing daughters in the most religiously conservative corners of the western world have to work hard to find a dance school for their daughters that doesn’t consider sexually suggestive clothing and dance moves to be a normal part of the repertoire.

#4 So, after reading what the director has to say about her film, here’s where she was trying to take it: She grew up in an immigrant household where religion was used as cover, among people her in native culture, to justify the objectifying, subjugation, and sexual exploitation of women.  As a teen she was torn between that world and a permissive hedonism in teen culture that any reader coming of age after 1965 would recognize.  And yet, as a grown woman attending a community event in her home neighborhood in Paris, she was absolutely shocked to see tween girls performing, with no one batting an eye, in a manner that you see in the trailer for the film.

–> The director’s statement of purpose for the film is that she wanted to show how girls growing up in her culture are pressured into choosing among two different kinds of sexually exploitive cultures.

(More below on that.)

#5 One thing Ms. Doucouré says in one of the interviews is that, in fact, she had to use quite a lot of restraint and under-tell just how sordid is the world that real middle school girls are living in today.  In her words: Parents aren’t ready to see this.  In my words: It would be illegal.

Is it morally problematic for Ms. Doucouré to be filming girls doing the dance moves, in the costumes, as she is? Absolutely.  I do not approve.  I do not say to you, “Go watch this film!” I do not say to you, “Subscribe to Netflix!” But understand that, from the director’s point of view, she is literally only having girls perform exactly what they are already doing in real life.  She is having girls perform on film exactly what parents of competitive dancers in affluent, even nominally religious families, already pay buckets of money to have their girls do.

Her stated purpose in doing this (and I cannot confirm how well she pulls it off) is to show the harm that comes from this.  Dance moms? Ms. Doucouré is after you.

#6 Let’s talk about that directorial restraint.

Ms. Doucouré’s research confirmed what I’ve known ever since I first sent an undercover agent into the world of affluent, mainstream suburban middle schoolers here in the Bible Belt: Girls these days expect to have to perform sexual favors for their peers.

Not just girls from poor immigrant families living in tough neighborhoods.  We are talking girls at private schools, girls in club sports (read: thousands of dollars on her sports hobby), girls growing up in McMansions.

How normal is the promiscuity among tweens and teens?  It is so widespread, and so self-sabotaging, that my kid’s class got abstinence talks from the atheist public-school biology teacher — a person with no moral reason to object to consensual sex, no reservations about contraception or abortion, but who could not help but see how teens were destroying themselves with the sheer quantity of premarital sex that had become the norm among the students.

If you are shocked by what you see in Cuties trailer, God bless you.  Yes.  Yes.  It is two inches from child porn.

Why those two inches? Because it is a film about girls who are entering the now-normal world of actual child porn that is your teenager’s daily reality.

#7 Your middle schooler’s porn problem doesn’t come from nowhere.

I have no expectation that Mignonnes (Cuties) resolves in a manner that would win a Theology of the Body award.  Mainstream, traditional French culture is not a culture of chastity.  I love France.  I love many things about French culture.  But this is also a place where adultery is normal and accepted.  What has changed in recent years, in terms of sexual morals as explored in this film, is not a change of kind but of degree. Traditional French culture at the highest, most respectable levels demanded discretion.  Americans who disparage the French president’s having a mistress commit the fault of being uncouth.  From the traditional French point of view, it would be like complaining the president uses the toilet — everyone does, but that doesn’t mean we have to chat about it.

Americans have our own, differently-flavored unchastity problems.  (We, too, have adulterous presidents. For example.)  Keep in mind that the parents and grandparents now approving of their daughter’s participation in Little Ho-House Dance Team grew up believing that Risky Business, Top Gun, and Officer and a Gentleman were all great films.  Classics!  I can remember watching what was supposed to be clean-cut classic Western — and one featuring boys and teens is co-stars in a youth-can-do-it themed film — and turning it off when we hit the Happy Prostitute trope.  The US is the place where sweet old ladies at the antique mall try to convince your kids that porn is just fine.

So no, I don’t expect Mignonnes resolves a story about an eleven-year-old torn between two bad choices by finding the third way that is chastity.  If nothing else, it’s an award-winning French film, and let me tell you, it is hard to find a French film that doesn’t glorify unchastity.  It’s hard to find a French film that didn’t require someone to strip naked on the set in the making-of, and here I’m using the very, very low bar of “if it could have been filmed in a way that kept the naughty bits covered, it might can get a pass, but if there was simply no way to film this scene without the actor or actress actually being required to work nude in front of the camera, then we’re done, movie over.”

So. In conclusion:

  • Per her own words, the director of Mignonnes (Cuties) was attempting to show that the sexualization of tweens is a serious problem;
  • I agree;
  • I have no reason to believe that the film resolves in favor of chastity, though I’m certainly open to being surprised, if anyone who’s already seen the film wants to cough up spoilers.

The Cobbler (mountainous land feature), photo by Ben Arthur, Arrochar Alps, Scotland

Here, have a palate cleanser, courtesy of Wikimedia’s Image of the Day (CC 4.0).  Look here for a detailed description.