Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

“The Great Gatsby,” the American Dream, and True Personal Freedom

The Great Gatsby offers a profound look at and critique of the American Dream. I found this paragraph from Chapter VI about Jay Gatsby to be particularly insightful:

His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

America is a place of freedom: its citizens are not constrained by class or caste. In America, a Dakota farm boy can indeed become a millionaire or a celebrity. We Americans value “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” more than anything else. We have enthroned freedom as an absolute good, and built monuments in its honor all over our land.

The great Jay Gatsby is a fictional icon of the person allured by the American Dream. He had been born James Gatz of North Dokota, but he did not allow the limitations of his childhood circumstances determine his destiny. He was not afraid to grasp for godlike control of his fate and actualize “his Platonic conception of himself.” With voracious ambition, he launched out on his self-conceived, pseudo-divine mission of achieving the success that is available in America to those willing to grab it.

Those who have read the novel know how it turns out for Gatsby and appreciate what it tells us about the American Dream.  He goes too far in forcing reality to conform to his will, and his self-made destiny takes a wrong turn into self-destruction.

I have been reading R.R. Reno’s recent book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. In the introduction, he points out,

We Americans like to compliment ourselves for our independence and self-sufficiency. But there’s a dark side to our national character. A deep sadness comes when we realize, finally, that we’re on our own, which is where secular individualism brings us in the end.

American freedom, when left unbridled, leads to isolation from God. Absolute self-determination is simply incompatible with God’s Providence. As Reno puts it,

This world is God’s, not mine. It’s not for me to make myself into whatever I wish. God, not my sovereign will, is the Supreme Being. In him we live and move and have our being.

But our American society has so hyper-valorized personal freedom, that we are arriving at unnatural consequences.

Our dream of freedom promises that no man’s destiny is fixed at birth. Why, then, should nature dictate? Why should genitalia dictate? Why should our decaying bodies dictate? Why should DNA dictate? Why should anything other than freedom alone, operating in a void, govern our futures? Unless we’re ready to propose an end or purpose for freedom to seek and serve, we’ll end up saying that freedom is for the sake of freedom. The American dream thus turns into a totalitarian nightmare of political power marshaled to subdue everything— except freedom.

It is a beautiful thing that in America no man’s destiny is fixed at birth, but it can become a nightmarish thing if this freedom is not guided and channeled by truth. Fitzgerald intuited this reality and wonderfully captured it in his classic novel.

God has blessed us with freedom to develop ourselves up into flourishing human beings, and America, perhaps more than any other country, cherishes this freedom. However, when we overstep our bounds with Gatsby-like arrogance, we step into the dark side of the American dream – one that leads us away from God and into ruin.

The proposal that R.R. Reno offers in his book is the only way to prevent the American Dream from mutating into an “American Nightmare”: we must indeed cherish our freedom, but within the context of an ennobling and ultimately more liberating submission to divine truth.

“We Create Reality”: The Power of Hollywood and A Christian Response

The other day, I was walking down Bleeker Street in southern Manhattan, when I noticed a commotion: to my right, a large number of people were taking out their cell phones and snapping pictures. The phones were pointed in my direction, but they were focused on someone behind me. I turned around to see a black gentleman wearing an orange ski cap sitting on a bike. I did not see his face at first, but when he turned towards me, I realized that it was Will Smith and that I had almost walked into the middle of his film shoot! It turns out that he was filming for Collateral Beauty, a movie coming out in December.

The film shoot of "Collateral Beauty" on Bleeker Street. (The snow was all imported for the filming."
The film shoot of “Collateral Beauty” on Bleeker Street. (The snow was all imported for the filming.)

Then, two weeks later, I came across another film shoot in a rather unlikely place: my seminary! St. Joseph’s Seminary is a beautiful, stately building from the turn of the last century, and somehow producers at CBS got word that we have wood-paneled conference rooms and a nice cloister garden, just what they needed to film scenes in a “Russian embassy” for an episode of Madame Secretary. Film crews and equipment descended upon Dunwoodie, and for a few days two very different worlds overlapped. Cassock-wearing seminarians shared the hallways with crew members and actors, and it seemed that both sides were mutually curious: we took pictures of them and they took pictures of us! (At one point, the lead actress Tea Leoni went up to a group of seminarians to ask for a photo with them.)

The main hall taken over by film crew members and equipment. (Photo credit: Anthony Marcella.)
The main hall taken over by film crew members and equipment. (Photo credit: Anthony Marcella.)

Our rector told us that in a conversation with representatives from CBS, he jokingly suggested that the Russian Orthodox seminary down the road from us might be a better suited to be a “Russian embassy.” The response that he got was, that the seminary would be just fine for them because  “we create reality.”

The conference room turned into "a Russian embassy."
The conference room turned into a Russian embassy.

Having come upon two film shoots in the course of two weeks, the film industry was already on my mind, but something about that nonchalant statement made me think about it even more. Obviously, what the person meant to say was that they create virtual reality, but virtual reality is still connected to and exerts an influence upon true reality. Hollywood and the film industry create virtual reality, but through it, they influence the way real people think and act. In this way, they do create reality.

This power to shape reality through virtual reality is nothing new; it is  as old as mankind itself. Since man has been telling stories and creating works of art, he has been shaping virtual realities that are extensions of his own experience and his own understanding of the real world. These artistic virtual realities are imbued with his own worldview, and all of the moral, religious, and philosophical assumptions contained therein.

This means that whoever has the ability to create artistic realities wields a considerable amount of power, power that is proportionate to the skill with which he exercises his art. The more realistic and entertaining the art, the more enthralled the viewer becomes, and the more likely he will be to assimilate the worldview of the artist. All art, but especially the art of storytelling, is a powerful way to communicate and teach philosophical, moral, and religious principles, be they true or false.

Actress Tea Leoni with a group of seminarians and faculty members. (Photo credit: Anthony Marcella.)
Actress Tea Leoni with a group of seminarians and faculty members. (Photo credit: Anthony Marcella.)

This is why both the rector of the seminary and the representatives of the Archdiocese of New York read the script of the episode of Madame Secretary before allowing CBS to use church property to film it. Knowing the power of television, they had to be sure that they would not be collaborating in anyway with a story that communicates ideas contrary to the truth.

I would suggest that we use the same type of discernment with the entertainment that we allow in our lives. We have to remember that when we watch TV, play video games, listen to music, read books, or view any other type of art, we are allowing ourselves to become part of a virtual reality, and we are thus giving the creator of the art the power to communicate his worldview and values to us. We need to be careful with that.

I am not saying that we need to be puritanical and reject all art that contains values contrary to our own. Rather, I am suggesting that we be discerning in the way that we approach it. In other words, we ought to be attentive to the values being suggested, take what is true, and reject what is false.

St. Basil the Great
St. Basil the Great

St. Basil offered some excellent advice in the 4th century when Christians were deciding what to do with pagan literature. Some extremists were advocating its complete rejection, but St. Basil was more level-headed in his approach. The holy man of God suggested the following in his Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature:

Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest.

The next time you sit down to watch TV or watch a movie, keep in St. Basil’s timeless advice: take what is “allied to the truth” and “pass over the rest.” Do not let Hollywood indiscriminately influence the reality of your life.

“The Big Short”, Dutch Still Lifes, and the Fleetingness of Wealth

The Big Short (starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt) tells the true story of a small group of investors who foresaw the 2008 crash and played it to their advantage by betting against the market. Their investments led them into the underbelly of financial America, and their lives were forever changed by the the corruption and the greed that they witnessed.

This latest addition to Hollywood’s growing list of Wall Street movies simultaneously shows the allure and the fleetingness of wealth. An important part of the plot takes place in Las Vegas where the main protagonists go to attend a conference in order to learn more about securities based on subprime mortgages. The entire city of Las Vegas, with its flashiness and get-rich-quick glamour, provides an apt backdrop as the main characters gradually become more aware that the housing market financial sector has become a virtual casino with traders betting recklessly on subprime loans. The evanescent nature of these traders’ wealth and success is highlighted by the gambling that surrounds them.

I watched the movie in Manhattan, blocks away from where some of the scenes were filmed. First-time visitors are often awed by wealth and power that fill the city, and and it is certainly easy to feel dwarfed in many ways by its massive canyon of skyscrapers, each of which is an impressive monument of financial success. Engulfed by such embodiments of capital, its easy to forget that all it takes is the burst of a financial bubble or some other calamity and the buildings will becoming nothing more than hollow shells.

Coincidentally, the same day I watched The Big Short, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent some time looking at vanitas paintings. This genre of Dutch still lifes shows beautiful objects in exquisite detail interspersed with disconcerting hints of their fleetingness. For example, this painting by Willem Claesz Heda shows expensive tableware and the leftovers of a rich meal, but disorder clashes with opulence: the silver tazza is tipped over, a glass is broken in the background, and items balance precariously on the edge of the table. The tasty oysters are almost all gone. A half-peeled lemon provides a metaphor of the luxurious life: it may be beautiful to look at, but it is bitter to taste.

Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware Willem Claesz Heda, 1635

Overall, the painting effectively evokes a “party’s-over” feeling of dissatisfaction and regret: things are broken, food is gone, and a mess has to be picked up. Watching The Big Short, I got the same feeling, especially towards the end of the film when the market crashes and images of despair increase, one of them being the mass exodus of Lehman Brothers employees after the bank’s bankruptcy. Disillusioned and disgruntled, they haul their belongings out of the building while being told by a shouting supervisor not to talk to any of the press.

Two of the main characters take someone’s security card and go against the flow into the Lehman Brothers trading floor where they find post-apocalyptic desolation – empty desks and cluttered floors. In one powerful moment, they experienced the vanity of wealth: the mighty institution they had once dreamed of being a part of had been reduced to financial rubble. “This isn’t how I pictured it,” one of them says.

Like the Dutch still-life artists, Hollywood creates art that makes money by riding waves of popular sentiment. The 16th-century artists of Holland were appealing to sober-minded Calvinists and 21st-century producers of Hollywood are capitalizing on collective post-recession cynicism. Nevertheless, the truth portrayed in the their art is still universally valid and coincides with Scripture: wealth is fleeting.

St. Paul reminds us that “we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it” (1 Tim 6:7), and Jesus said “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19). None of this is to say that wealth is bad in itself. Material possessions are good and necessary, but we must value them appropriately. We can and should enjoy the wealth that God blesses us with, but we should do so remembering its fleetingness and keeping our eyes are Heaven “where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Mt 6:20).

The Big Short ends with alternating images: mansions and tent cities, jet skis and eviction notices, celebrating yuppies and homeless families. This juxtaposition is vanitas-like insofar as it reminds how quickly one’s fortune can change. The background music of Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks drives the point home.

Thankfully, we know that as long as we build our lives on the solid ground of Our Lord’s teachings, we will be more than ready for whenever the next levee breaks: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:25).