Thursday, April 28, 2005


"I see dead people." It’s not just a line proffered by a young boy with an exceptional range of vision, it’s now the case for all those working stiffs in search of emotional consolation who plump themselves down in front of the boob tube during prime time.

What the latter viewers are likely to see on network television has changed considerably over the years. "I Love Lucy" comedies and "Bonanza" Westerns morphed into "Laugh In" irreverence and Norman Lear commentary wrapped in domestic dysfunction. More recently viewers were treated to "Married With Children" cynicism--sit-com sleaze with a smirk. The question that then arose for TV moguls was this: Where do we go from here?

Having sated audiences with visions of firm flesh--and having convinced them that casual copulation after puberty is infinitely less important than inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke--the folks who regularly substitute shock-value for dramatic depth were perplexed. It wasn’t just a matter of where to push the envelope. It was a question of what envelope to push. As his "Crime Scene Investigation" programs indicate, producer Jerry Bruckheimer topped the long-standing industry obsession with sex with a clutch of shows featuring vivid images of death.

"Corpses R Us" might be an alternate title for these forensic dramas that exchange a fleshless Freddy Krueger for grotesque shots of bodies lying in various states of disrepair--either at the crime scene or atop an autopsy table. Close-ups of no-longer-vital organs being probed for admissible evidence prompts visceral reactions from viewers no longer aroused by gratuitous shots of animate mammary glands. Highlighted tissue isn’t distinguished by its beauty, but rather by its vulnerability to decay and displacement. Over against this vision of decomposition, the lyrical assertion: "All we are is dust in the wind," seems positively romantic.

On top of these haunting visual displays, CSI Las Vegas patrons are often treated to philosophical disquisitions that equate human life with the remains accessible during a post-mortem exam. "That’s all we really are," observed the bearded protagonist whose eyes gleam when discussing roller-coaster thrills but (like almost all the dramatic cast) has no room in his life for unnecessary chemical baggage--i.e. a wife and kids.

Donald Bellisario’s NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), joins Bruckheimer’s small-screen trio in exploring the commercial possibilities of pathology. Besides mortuarial moments that match anything displayed by CSI., NCIS adds to the scientific mix a brilliant, dark-haired woman who "just happens to be" a fan of BDSM. Her spiked necklace and Gothish appearance don’t make it clear whether Abby inclines more to the BD or the SM side of the erotic ledger. But her expertise and perkiness make one thing perfectly obvious--what once was considered perverse, is now just another day at the office.

It isn’t surprising that folks in the entertainment business--bereft of intellectual depth or moral insight--should grasp at any straw they can lay their hands on to get an emotional rise out of audiences. In lieu of dramatic intensity, they settle for envelope-pushing. For creativity they substitute titillation. Instead of works that give to virtue a local habitation and a name, they peddle spiritual pornography. Anything for an audience.

As snuff-films and "bug-chasing" erotic parties grimly testify, the last rung on the cultural ladder that leads to oblivion is a preoccupation with death--a desperate fascination born of the belief that only a random biological fluke distinguishes a living soul from a corpse.

Monday, April 18, 2005


The Terri Schiavo case has led some observers to conclude that people of faith have a morbid interest in prolonging life at any cost. If true, this position would be highly ironic--given the beliefs that most pious individuals hold about an afterlife. The passing of Pope John Paul II provides, by contrast, a classic example of death in the Christian tradition.

Overwhelmingly, what is crucial to believers isn’t "life at any price" but rather the much-reviled notion that life isn’t ours to do with as we please. Instead, it is seen as a gift whose proper uses are divinely circumscribed. John Locke articulated this view as follows: "Since all men are the creation of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker... they are his property, made to live for his, not one another’s, pleasure."

This grant of life doesn’t require a person to employ any means necessary to prolong it. Indeed, in one’s final days decisions are often made not to engage in heroic measures to postpone what seems inevitable. Comfort is offered, last rites may be administered, but no surgery or resuscitation efforts are contemplated. In the language of ethics this scenario is called "allowing to die"--and it is perfectly compatible with all the religious traditions with which I am familiar. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord," is the passage from the book of Job often cited on such occasions.

A more complex end-of-life scenario involves the removal of life-sustaining mechanisms from individuals already utilizing these devices. When patients themeselves request that "extraordinary" care be withdrawn, there is, by and large, no religious problem. These persons are simply choosing to suspend treatment that, within the "allowing to die" paradigm, is never begun. When, however, others take this decision upon themselves, questions about substitutive judgment and "playing God" arise--especially if doubt exists about the patient’s medical condition or the trustworthiness of a surrogate’s judgment.

Significantly, when life-support systems are discontinued, patients don’t inevitably die. Karen Ann Quinlan, for example, surprised doctors by continuing to live almost ten years after her breathing machine was removed. Such exceptions never occur, of course, when persons are denied not extraordinary care, but basic nutrition. Withholding food and water amounts to a death sentence whether one is sick or not. And when this act of deprivation is done without a patient’s consent, the result, morally speaking, becomes indistinguishable from homicide.

A final scenario occurs when someone actively brings about another’s demise by means such as lethal injection. In "mercy killing" the "angel of charity" becomes the immediate and active purveyor of death. Clint Eastwood’s character in "Million Dollar Baby" engaged in this illegal act for which, in real life, Jack Kevorkian now sits in a Michigan prison.

The religious objection to this option (as also to withholding nutrition) is that it clearly places ultimate responsibility for life in the hands of someone other than the One who created it. Both suicide and killing in the name of kindness are seen as acts of hubris by which individuals cross a bright line--a trespass that is even more flagrant when the coup de grace is unsolicited.

In a culture enamored with the notion of autonomy, religious concepts that highlight human boundaries seem outmoded. NBC’s Bryan Williams, commenting on the Pope’s passing, observed that the pontiff faced death "on his own terms." It was a singularly inept description--a self-inflating compliment employed to describe the final act of a supremely selfless life.

"My body is my own. I’ll do with it as I please," was a slogan common in the 60’s and 70’s. As those same baby boomers reach the age when bodies and intentions increasingly march to different drummers, the shortsightedness of that boast becomes more apparent. John Paul’s last years were an object lesson in bearing with grace the cross of physical infirmity.

For persons of faith, the crucial issue isn’t "quality of life" but rather one’s willingness to acknowledge, up to the point of death, that we are in God’s hands. Practically speaking, this acknowledgment means maintaining an attitude of humility vis a vis the ultimate outcome. "Thy will be done."

As it was when we entered life, so it is when we leave. The life we "control" is vanishingly small. Our spirit springs from a source beyond ourselves and flourishes in a matrix of interdependence. For those whose beliefs continue to derive from the religious wellsprings of Western culture, death confronts us with truths that modern culture yearns to deny: Life is a gift, not just a right--and the measure of that life is not mere self-assertion, but gratitude and service.

Friday, April 08, 2005


"I love you, now change." A popular theatrical work employs a version of this emotional about-face in its title. A similar duplicity characterizes the comments of many Americans about Pope John Paul II.

They express admiration for the pontiff’s courage. They applaud his role in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe and Russia. They recognize his spiritual stature. But then they complain that he didn’t keep up with the times. "Why couldn’t he have been," they aver in tones reminiscent of Rex Harrison’s in ‘My Fair Lady,’ "more like us."

It is indicative of our cultural presumption that folks whose lives are virtually devoid of danger should cavalierly dismiss ideas refined in the crucible of Nazi atrocities and Soviet repression. It doesn’t cross the minds of theological prima donnas that random notions absorbed from episodes of "C.S.I. Las Vegas" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" might not measure up to the wisdom derived from decades of devotion to priestly duties within a religious institution whose roots go back to the beginnings of Western civilization. Indeed, it frightens them to think that John Paul was great precisely because he wasn't more like us.

To have a widely respected figure stand over against the spirit of post-modernity is disconcerting for Monday-morning Monsignors. The idea that something might be seriously wrong with an undemanding "be yourself" ethic is not a thought that go-with-the-flow spiritualists are inclined to entertain. Instead, their version of tolerance demands that all major institutions conform to the lax canons of secular orthodoxy--or else. Unfortunately for them, John Paul II was hard to vilify.

Aficionados of "The da Vinci Code" would have loved to slander this Polish priest as a cynical and intriguing "Godfather"--a hypocritical "Sin City" prelate whose fangs dripped with blood. Most critics would have settled for a pope whose pronouncements infallibly coincided with New York Times editorial sentiment on issues like abortion, homosexuality, female priests, and starvation-with-dignity. Instead, what they got was a vigorous defender of traditional church doctrine whose widespread influence made him a KGB assassination target.

It is hard to imagine such a desperate plot being hatched, much less carried out, to silence a vicar exhibiting the "progressive" traits so prized by the late pope’s unauthorized consultants. To what point? Why would the Kremlin want to muzzle a pope welcomed at Hollywood cocktail parties--a Neville Chamberlain in ecclesiastical drag whose prayers call for nothing more than political accommodation and moral acquiescence? Better he should be given a very large microphone and preside at all those fashionable forums cravenly dedicated to reducing international tension.

In the biblical book of Acts, Peter says to a lame beggar, "Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, I give to you. In the name of Jesus ... rise and walk." Several centuries later one of the apostle’s institutional heirs boasted that the Church could no longer say, "Silver and gold have I none"--to which comment a faithful critic replied, "But neither can it now say, ‘Rise and walk.’"

A similar fate will befall any church that heeds the advice of persons supremely devoted to worldly approbation--an attitude that arouses neither fear in the heart of enemies nor admiration in the eyes of disciples.