The New Yorker for August 4, 2014, carried an article by one Michelle Goldberg titled ‘What is a woman?’ In some circles, according to the article, this is a hotly contested and difficult question. There is, it seems, a furious debate, leading even to threats of violence, boycotts, and the withdrawal of travel visas, between, on the one hand, TERFs (‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists’) and, on the other hand, the supporters of ‘trans-women’ (that is, men who claim to be women). The TERFs think that men are so privileged by our world that they ought not to be given the additional privilege of choosing not to be men. The TERFs apparently are getting the worse of this battle within the cultural left, so that for example one (pro-abortion) group recently ‘voted unanimously to stop using the word “women” when talking about people who get pregnant, so as not to exclude trans men’ [i.e., women who claim to be men but who can get pregnant nonetheless]. Imagine that: it is thought to be wrong – in fact wicked – to say ‘women can get pregnant’.
It was, I believe, Euripides who wrote that ‘those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad’. This is not a notably Christian sentiment, but one appreciates that it has a certain aptness. When I was a young priest in my 20s my neighbor Andy was wont to say, ‘I don’t know what women want.’ To which a woman friend of his from ‘Macon, Ecuador’ (one parent from each) said, ‘Oh, Andy, that’s easy: give them jewelries.’ I don’t think we suspected that anybody seriously had to ask what women are, even if we all might ask what they want or whether or not they are apt matter for the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Now excuse me for a moment as I appear to shift gears. A few years ago I heard a local editor opine on a public radio chat show here that the purpose of art is to offend. Most possible interpretations of that opinion are manifestly and verifiably false. It is arguable that most good artists paint or sculpt or write or compose to earn a living. Most mediocre artists paint or sculpt or write or compose to pass the time or to ‘express themselves’: the problem with American education, Flannery O’Connor once said, being that it does not suppress nearly enough self-expression. Beyond these purposes through most of human history most artists, far from seeking to offend, have made their art to honor or exalt or advance something beyond themselves which they believed to be lovable, such as God, a native city, heroic deeds, or a lover. It is impossible to imagine a desire to offend motivating the prehistoric cave painters of Lascaux, or the Psalmist, or the builders of Salisbury cathedral or of the temple complex at Angkor Wat, or J.S. Bach as he wrote the Goldberg Variations and the B Minor Mass.
We are commonly told that censorship is bad because it stifles great art. To which notion someone once observed that if heavy-handed governments or censors could stifle great art, there would be precious little great art in the world. We might even suggest that a mischievous desire to run rings around the censor or to show wit by playing off received opinion or to delight by upturning the reader’s or hearer’s expectations all may stimulate artists in a day of powerful orthodoxies and conventions. The local editor I just mentioned probably does not understand that his doctrine of art-as-offensiveness is in fact itself now an entrenched and stale orthodoxy. But even in periods oppressed by a truly powerful, sclerotic, traditional, orthodoxy, little great art was primarily meant to offend.
The just-mentioned editor’s paper advertises itself on the also just-mentioned public radio station by saying that it informs its readers about (I paraphrase with an imperfect memory) ‘local music, politics, food, and other follies’. Here we see a kind of sophomoric cynicism, a pose of world-weariness, and assertion of knowingness which is assumed to denote sophistication, as if to say ‘All is Vanity Fair, but we have seen through!’ We may grant that much politics is folly, but food and music? If art, music, and food are not serious and important, the antithesis of ‘folly’, then what possibly can be serious?
While I am indirectly bashing public radio, allow me to note the frequency with which its sponsors such as the Ford Foundation announce their dedication to ‘social change’. The assumption seems to be that listeners will think that ‘social change’ is a necessarily good thing for the support of which the sponsors should be congratulated. The most superficial reflection shows that this is a silly idea. The introduction of economic chaos, genocide, or a deadly plague to a country would all bring about profound social change: change for the worse which no sane person could want. ‘Change’ is entirely neutral. It brings good things (modern plumbing, Novocain, better American restaurant food) and bad.
The notion that social change is a necessarily or even usually desirable thing has, I think, origins in the same dubious source as doubt about the definition of ‘woman’, the idea that art should be transgressive and offensive, and that sophistication and intelligence are evidenced by cynicism and reflexive deprecation. The source is rebellion against the given-ness of the world and the goodness of the world’s Creator. God does not make mad, but we make ourselves mad or unhappy by refusing to accept ‘our selves, our souls, and bodies’ as limited creatures, both given by God and also limited and circumscribed by his moral law. Freedom does not come from lawless self-assertion or insane abandonment of reality or the pretense that finitude and its limits are oppression. Freedom comes from service to God, the giver of all good gifts.
(Originally published in The TRINITARIAN. Copyright retained by the author)