Inhuman Swill : Catholicism

The season of miracles

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StKateriTekakwitha.jpg
Now that Christmas is over, let's talk about miracles.

Miracles have been on my mind since last week when I heard the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk-Algonquin woman whom the Vatican plans to canonize. The miracle that sealed her canonization was 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner's 2006 recovery from the flesh-eating bacterium Strep A. His chest, neck, face, and scalp were infected, but a Blessed Kateri relic and prayers to the long-dead woman supposedly halted the progress of the infection before it reached his eyes, brain, or heart.

Jake's recovery is wonderful, perhaps even remarkable, but is it a miracle? We tend to use the word miracle in two different senses without always making much of a distinction between them. Sometimes we mean an occurrence has come to pass that was simply quite unlikely. In this case, miracle is nothing more than a hyperbolic turn of phrase. But often we mean an occurrence that could only have come to pass through some kind of supernatural or divine intervention.

The miraculous waters are only muddied by the frequency with which the word gets tossed around in the news. A game-winning three-point shot from half-court at the buzzer and other impressive athletic feats get the same tag as the 10-year-old Dutch boy who survives a plane crash that kills all 103 other people on board.

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Having watched Valkyrie recently, I've been thinking about the intersection of art, commerce and religion. I know, that's probably not the kind of discussion the filmmakers intended to provoke, but here we are. Germany started it.

Every so often a big kerfluffle flares up in the media or the blogosphere about what famous entertainer is or isn't a Scientologist, and why. Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Isaac Hayes, Beck, Chick Corea, Edgar Winter, Chaka Khan, Mark Isham, Greta Van Susteren—we're supposed to avoid giving them money so we don't inadvertently support their reprehensible "church." Leonard Cohen, Paul Haggis, Jerry Seinfeld, Courtney Love, Gloria Gaynor—once were Scientologists, but now they're on the okay list. Neil Gaiman—wait, what's the controversy with him? I'm not supposed to read him because his relatives are Scientologists?

Frankly, keeping score like this is ridiculous.

As much as I dislike Scientology, discriminating against artists because of their private beliefs is a losing game. I hate the fact that there were Crusades, and a Spanish Inquisition, and institutional coverups of child sexual abuse, but that doesn't mean I'm going to deny myself the work of Catholic writers like Graham Greene or Tim Powers, or Catholic filmmakers like Kevin Smith. Will some of the money I pay for their stuff end up in Vatican coffers? Possibly, but I'm not naive enough to think that any of the money I give or receive is pure. We live in a pluralist society. We can't help the fact that our money is going to circulate through parts of the body politic that we don't like. The only judgment we can really make is how we respond to the art, how pure and universal and human it is, how ennobling or demeaning or thrilling or dull, how free from or full of agenda or polemic.

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