Friday, June 25, 2004

Guilt or shame?

It is a commonplace of anthropology to distinguish between a guilt-culture and a shame-culture. In a shame-culture, social mores revolves around the related ideas of honor, duty, country, glory, loyalty, name, praise, and reputation. It is very much concerned with group-identity. Paradigm cases are the Iliad, the Indian caste-system, imperial Japan, Chivalry, and the Mafia.

Warrior-cultures are shame-cultures. This extends to certain subcultures that are either genuine warrior- cultures (e.g., the military), or quasi-militaristic (e.g., street gangs, professional sports).

Another commonplace of anthropology is to distinguish between ascribed and achieved status. Tribal cultures are shame-cultures. You have an ascribed status that is assigned to you by birth—by your place in the clan. However, it is also possible, through honor or dishonor, to acquire an achieved status that either raises or lowers your ascribed status.

A guilt-culture, by contrast, lay emphasis on individual responsibility irrespective of social stigma or social approval. Ancient Israel is an interesting example of a guilt culture built on top of a shame culture.

Left to their own devices, most cultures are shame-cultures. Certain conditions must be in place for a guilt-culture to arise.

How did ancient Israel become a guilt-culture? It was adopted and redeemed by God. This had several effects.

First of all, it had a leveling influence. Everyone, regardless of their social standing, was ultimately answerable to the one true God, and not to their clan.

Secondly, their standing with God was an ascribed rather than achieved status. They did nothing to deserve their adoption or redemption.

Thirdly, confession and contrition brought pardon for sin.

A capacity for self-criticism is impossible apart from these conditions. A shame-culture is all about self-justification. A guilt-culture is all about divine justification.

Unless you feel it is safe to lower your guard and admit your transgressions, you will be very defensive of your honor. Without redemption and remission of sin, confession is culpable rather than exculpatory.

It is often said that justification by faith is antinomian. To the contrary, it is a shame-culture that is antinomian. A member of a shame-culture cannot afford to indulge in a candid self-image. That would be ruinous to his self-esteem. It would implicate his social circle. So he must live in denial. He must bend the rules. Anything to keep up appearances.

By contrast, a member of a guilt-culture doesn’t feel the gnawing need to put on a false front. Sin is shameful, but there is nothing shameful about the confession of sin. Repentance is honorable. For it honors God. It honors the justice of God. It honors the mercy of God. Grace is the mother of morality.

To a guilt-culture, a shame-culture looks immoral. For what counts in a shame-culture are not the objectivities of right and wrong, but the conventional perception of right and wrong. In a shame-culture, there is no such thing as winning by unworthy means. To lose is to lose face, and that is the essence of dishonor. To win is to save face, and that is the essence of honor.

A Christian culture is a guilt-culture. To the extent that Western civilization is a Christian culture, it is a guilt-culture. To the extent that Western civilization is a post-Christian culture, it reverts to a shame-culture.

You can see this play out in the current conflict between Islam and the West. This is a three-way relation.

The House of Islam is a classic shame-culture. America, as the most Christian country in the Western world, is more of a guilt-culture. And the Contingent, in its studied secularity, is another shame-culture.

This is why many Americans find it hard to fathom either the European or the Muslim mindset. For Europe, the grand transgression of the United States is to openly flout world opinion.

This also explains European sympathy for Islam. For they are both shame-cultures. The very notion of an "international community," bound by international law, moves within the orbit of a shame-culture.

In a shame-culture, the only unforgivable sin is a fault-pas. What the United States did was worse than a crime—it was a breach of social etiquette. And as with other social taboos, this insusceptible to rational analysis.

To the average American, the hew-and-cry over multilateralism is simply a practical and moral irrelevancy because it isn’t moored in objective morality, and offers no practical strategies for coping with a real world crisis.

But because guilt-cultures and shame-cultures are morally incommensurable, Americans can never win this debate. No matter how reasonable and realistic we sound, it does nothing to persuade or dissuade the opposing side because the glue of a shame-culture consists in a sticky tissue of social conventions rather than the adhesive web of a rational value-theory. Like superstition, it is inherently ineffable and anti-intellectual.

Americans also find it hard to grasp how it is honorable for Muslims to lie, cheat, and steal, foster a cult of martyrdom, strap dynamite onto the backs of their sons and daughters, and massacre innocents with impunity.

But, in Islam, you are either of the House of Islam, or else an infidel. There is no a common code of honor in dealing with Muslims and infidels alike.

Americans are further perplexed by the absence of individual initiative and personal responsibility among Muslims. Why don’t they do more to better themselves? Why the apathy in the face of failure? Why not roll up your sleeves and solve the problem?

But to better yourself would be an admission of guilt. And that would be shameful. It would bring dishonor on the family name.

The only ultimate solution is for a shame-culture to evolve into a guilt-culture, and that can only happen through the preaching and role-modeling of the Gospel.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Jeepers Creepers

Among the stock criticisms which were hurled at The Passion of the Christ, two of the more common were that the film was "sadomasochistic," and that it distorted the Christian message with its "antisemitism" and unremitting gore. The critics also feigned a touching concern that such movie might not be age-appropriate for younger viewers.

In particular we were told that the flogging of a half-naked Jesus was "sadomasochistic." It is, of course, customary to strip a flogging victim, since whipping the padded back of a fully-clothed victim somewhat defeats the purpose of the exercise.

This month the SCIFI channel is airing "Jeepers Creepers" and its creepy sequel. Director Victor Salva restores the original meaning of sadomasochism. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, "the movie has a healthy interest in the male physique, and it's amazing how many of the guys walk around bare-chested. The critic John Fallon writes 'at a certain point, I thought I was watching soft gay erotica.'"

The homoerotic fixation is not accidental, for as Michael Medved reminds the reader in his own review of the movie, Salva is a certified sex offender, having been convicted of seducing an under-age actor.

But there's more to the movie than its salivating sodomy. For the horror genre affords the director a pretext to present half-naked males as fodder for death by dismemberment, mutilation, and flailing alive. In case we've forgotten, the combination of sex and torture is the defining feature of sadomasochism.

What is more, both movies target the teen demographic. Summer movies naturally play to the teen market—which is out of school—and the horror genre is—whatever the reason—more appealing to young men. In addition, the SCIFI channel is also geared to teen and twenty-something males.

And yet that is not all, by any means. For the films are also blasphemous. Medved points out,"
In the well-shot, stylishly edited opening sequence the movie achieves more revolting resonance than the rest of the pathetic proceedings in part because of its shockingly sacrilegious and patently offensive imagery. At sunset in a deserted cornfield, three scarecrows hang on towering crosses in an unmistakable reference to Calvary. The figure on the center cross slowly comes to life, eventually spreading its wings and soaring over the powerless humans below like a dark angel. Does this warped Christological allusion connect with the fact that the producers sometimes refer to their latest 'Jeepers Creepers' project as 'J.C. 2'?"

Actually, this interpretation could be reinforced in several respects. The word-play is even closer than that, for "Jeepers" is, itself, a pious euphemism for the name of Jesus as an expletive.

In addition, a flying fiend is naturally suggestive of a fallen angel. That connotation might be coincidental in isolation, but in conjunction with other such motifs, the association appears to be intentional.

But beyond that, the Creeper whisks his victims off to an abandoned church. There he decorates the crypt with the corpses in what one character compares to a travesty of the Sistine Chapel. And one wonders, in this setting, if a villain who consumes his victims alive is not a parody of a priest celebrating the Mass.

Just judging by his name, I assume that Salva's family background is Roman Catholic. And I also assume that he takes ironic delight in the religious overtones of his name.

While we're at it, let us not forget that Francis Ford Coppola, of Godfather fame, is executive producer of the sequel. For some reason, Coppola has developed quite an appetite for the horror genre. Over the last few years his credits include Dracula, Frankenstein, Sleepy Hollow, as well as Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde—in addition to Jeepers Creepers 2—while his movie "The Third Miracle" presents the Catholic Church as a venal institution.

What we have, then, is a sadomasochistic movie about an Antichrist figure, or Satan incarnate. And even though the Creeper is putatively the villain, the element of voyeurism makes him a subversively sympathetic character from the director's twisted standpoint. Moreover, the director's lustful perversion can only render him hostile to Christian ethics. Hence his profanation of central Christian emblems is a calculated desecration. Those in bondage to abomination can only abominate the holy, for they have traded the light of the world for the kingdom of darkness.