Wednesday, April 13, 2016


If you've ever wondered what psychoanalysis might have to say about The Sound of Music, then wonder no more. In the above video philosopher Slavoj Zizek uncovers the "hidden" message of the film, and more importantly, the "hidden" message of the Church as institution: "pretend to renounce and you can get it all". In the case of the film "getting it" means getting Baron von Trapp.

What Zizek doesn't mention is the theological move which the head of the Convent makes. Here's the key part of the dialogue:

Maria: I left... I was frightened... I was confused. I felt, I've never felt that way before, I couldn't stay. I knew that here I'd be away from it. I'd be safe... I can't face him again... Oh, there were times when we would look at each other. Oh, Mother, I could hardly breathe... That's what's been torturing me. I was there on God's errand. To have asked for his love would have been wrong. I couldn't stay, I just couldn't. I'm ready at this moment to take my vows. Please help me. 
Reverend Mother: Maria, the love of a man and a woman is holy too. You have a great capacity to love. What you must find out is how God wants you to spend your love. 
Maria: But I pledged my life to God. I pledged my life to his service. 
Reverend Mother: My daughter, if you love this man, it doesn't mean you love God less. No, you must find out and you must go back. 
Maria: Oh, Mother, you can't ask me to do that. Please let me stay, I beg of you. 
Reverend Mother: Maria, these walls were not built to shut out problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live.

At work in the Reverend Mother's pastoral wisdom is a non-competitive account of a creation governed only by the law of love. In essence, the advice to Maria is "follow your heart". Such advice is, of course, the very antithesis of pastoral wisdom, but who of us would not like to hear it?

This is what makes a passage such as 1 Corinthians 7 so troubling (and so ignored). Paul speaks of divided interests, of a "world" which competes with God for our time and devotion and service. In other words, if Maria had gone to St Paul for advice, it seems he would have told her: stay as you are. By loving this man you will almost certainly end up loving God less. But if you're too horny then go ahead and marry him. You won't be sinning, and your union with him can be of service to God. Now this advice may have led to the very same outcome, but the kind of world that Maria now inhabits would have been radically altered by Paul's speech.

Another episode from The Sound of Music which Zizek does not mention is the relationship between Liesl, the eldest daughter in the von Trapp family, and Rolfe, a telegram delivery boy. Their relationship mirrors that of their seniors in many ways, but it does not enjoy the same happy ending. Nazism gets in the way of true love! There is a very interesting exchange toward the end of the film. Liesl meets Rolfe in Vienna, having not seen him in quite some time. She tries to rekindle their youthful romance, but the newly recruited Nazi Rolfe tells her: "I'm now occupied with more important matters."

More important than modern, romantic love?! Neither the film, nor the Christians it depicts, can imagine such a thing. Surely the only true ideology is one which allows us to roam free in a non-competitive space, where even God Himself does not impinge on our personal projects.

But the God of Paul does so impinge. As Zizek says, the kind of non-competitive, follow-your-heart logic of the Reverend Mother does not belong to Christianity as such. Christianity is much more interesting than that. So what am I saying? I think I am saying that if we want to look for the logic of Christian discipleship in The Sound of Music, we can look no further than the Nazi Rolfe.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

That's Amore

Since I am supposed to be doing research on love (if ever something cries out not to be researched, it is surely love), Pope Francis's latest statement has proved timely. It is called Amoris Laetitia - The Joy of Love. Francis is not reflecting on love per se (whatever that might mean), but on love as it pertains to family life.

I have only began to read what is a fairly long statement, but the following line caught my attention. Francis says:

The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses.

This claim comes in the context of "fruitful" human love being understood as imaging the fecundity of the divine life. I have two things to say about it.

First, it is not true. If Scripture teaches us anything, it teaches us that it is precisely the inability of human couples to beget life that is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. The child of promise, and not the child of the flesh, is the one who carries forward the divine blessing. This is a basic theological truth, but it is one so easy to miss, and one whose implications are enormous.

Second, Pope Francis's claim shows how tempting it is to speak the language of natural theology when we talk about love between human beings. Indeed it is hard to know how to speak about love and *not* engage in a bit of natural theology, intentionally or otherwise. My hope is that Karl Barth might teach me how to do so, and thus help me to avoid the notion of agape as the civil virtue which keeps the machine running. (Not that that's what Pope Francis is doing, I hasten to add.)