On Keeping Powder Dry

“Woe to me if I do not evangelize”

1 Cor 9:16


You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done.

Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler “(1978)


Two thousand years apart, the verses complement each other. St.Paul was a canny evangelist. He knew when to fold (on circumcision and table laws) and when to hold his ground. He staked his mission and his life on the distinction.

George de La tour. Cheat With the Ace of Diamonds (1635). Louvre Museum, Paris.
George de La tour. Cheat With the Ace of Diamonds (1635). Louvre Museum, Paris.

What calls this to mind is a reader’s response to the previous post:

Just goes to show you can make up any sort of explanation to justify anything as art. Of course, by Mullarkey’s logic, pro-life Catholics should stop demonstrating in front of abortion clinics.

The respondent’s first sentence is quite right: Language can be tilted and stretched to vindicate any art work whatever. That is why there are press releases. My post, however, did not justify Piss Christ.Rather , it  proposed that Christians venture to blunt—declaw, render impotent—offensive provocations. That is not duck soup. It requires a honed talent, however grudgingly achieved, for gamesmanship. (I can hear the groans already: “Casuistry!” “Sophistry 101!”) It is a combat sport worth playing for the opportunities it offers to teach, correct, even—if we get good at it—endear.

Abortion is of an entirely different order. It is not a provocation, not something of which we simply disapprove. Abortion on demand, partial-birth abortion, abortion as last-ditch contraception—these are patent evils to be exposed for what they are. For that very reason, it is wise to keep the powder dry until needed against behaviors and beliefs that are inherently, unambiguously inhumane. Things that merely offend, having been crafted to rile, are nonessential. Not worth the shot. We stymie our own objectives by squandering our voice—and, with it, our credibility—by shaking a finger at art because it gets under the skin. Ask Aesop what happens if you cry “Wolf!” too often.

It feels good, being on the qui vive to catch the art world sticking its tongue out. It is much harder to resist the bait, to hang fire and concentrate on truly demonic adversaries—chief among them, the advancing concept of life-unworthy-of-life. Evangelization is not a matter of pelting anathemas at every affront. It requires, among other substantive things, some humor. And an ear for tone.

Lucas van Leyden. The Chess Players (c. 1508-10). Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Lucas van Leyden. The Chess Players (c. 1508-10). Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Not everyone scrolls through comment sections. So let me repeat here part of another respondent’s observation:

The response of some conservative Catholics is to scold—as if the offender is someone who knows better, who’s been well-catechized and has grown up in a Christian culture.
Nope. We are all missionaries now. Many, possibly a majority of our “Christian nation,” have no more than a passing acquaintance with Christianity and many more no real catechesis—their catechesis has been at the hands of the world . . . .
There are definitely times to speak and affirm what we know to be the truth, but perhaps with less emphasis on aggrieved feelings and with more recognition that the people trying to offend probably know next to nothing about God. Their intent may not be, in the end, really profane. Many of this crowd seem to be aiming at Christ’s followers, not Him, about Whom, unfortunately, they’re not even that curious.

There is realism and kindliness here, and more than a little poignance. To see how her words apply, skip over to Serrano’s statement published in The Guardian , September 28, 2012:

At the time I made Piss Christ , I wasn’t trying to get anything across. In hindsight, I’d say Piss Christ is a reflection of my work, not only as an artist, but as a Christian . . . .

The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you’re not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man. And for Christ to have been crucified and laid on the cross for three days where he not only bled to death, he shat himself and he peed himself to death.

So if Piss Christ upsets you, maybe it’s a good thing to think about what happened on the cross.

There is no guessing whether hindsight, expedience or age prompted the sixty-three year old Serrano to reach for the high road, inelegance aside. But three days on the cross? No, Andres, threehours . This reveals one reason why some astute priest should have been game enough to ask you in for coffee or cognac back when it mattered.

• • • •
No matter how galling certain art works, there is an urgent reason for not calling in the sensitivity cops: Claims of shock and grievance are a smoke screen for the ambitions of left-liberal activists and Islamic aggressors. We collude in muzzling ourselves by granting credence to the insidious notion that there exists such a thing as a right not to be offended. If ever an assumption were designed to smother truth-telling in the cradle, it is this one. It is simply not possible to speak candidly—about Islamic violence, gay marriage, abortion, or a host of other issues—without antagonizing one militant advocacy group or another.

When wounded feelings—including our own—are summoned to silence others, the gag pulls a little tighter.