The Real Reason People Like 13 Reasons Why

There have been plenty of reasonable critiques of the new hit Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, which follows the story of a community dealing with a young girl’s suicide and the creative “notes” she left behind. Bad acting, bad writing, the “role models” are extraordinarily clueless, suicide is romanticized, etc. Okay… then why is it so popular?

Take a look at the trailer (language warning):

The most powerful moment in the trailer, at least for me, is the revelation that the tapes are from Hannah, at 37 seconds… The following 20 seconds build on this force.

I suggest that the reason people are so intrigued by the show is this: it presents a concrete, realistic example of someone speaking from beyond the grave. Through her tapes, the Hannah Baker character presents a benign version of otherworldly communication, and people find this attractive. We human beings have a deep-seated need to go beyond this world and encounter something greater than ourselves. By committing suicide and leaving voice recordings of herself, Hannah half-accomplishes this – she is half-encountered, and she is half-greater, as she has become “ubiquitous” and commands enormous attention, but… spoiler alert… she’s dead. At any rate, people’s sense of the otherworldly is “turned on” by the show, and since many are not activating that sense adequately through religion, they watch this show to compensate. (This goes hand in hand with Hollywood’s obsession with exorcisms and the occult – a topic which merits its own post.) Hannah takes the place of God, Who, by the way, does not seem to find His way into the screenplay.

The problem is just that. Being convicted by an accusation of a dead girl through an audio tape is painful, important, and final, but she neither necessarily has got everything correct (as the show explores at length) nor is anyone’s life truly measured by her judgment. Furthermore, there can be no reconciliation with her… it’s over.

On the other hand, being convicted by an accusation of the living God through Scripture or preaching or conscience is quite different. Because God does not make mistakes, and because He does indeed provide the true measure of our life, His accusations, if seen rightly, are more painful, important, and final. It is no use arguing or rationalizing – we must reconcile, which thankfully we can do. It is even more powerful to find oneself being accused by God due to the fact that He is not just looking to prove a point, or to get some kind of attention, or to show that He’s really upset and can’t take it anymore… He convicts us of sin because He loves us, and reconciling with Him and amending our lives to be in accord with His Will are the best things for us.

Not so with Ms. Baker.

The characters in the show indirectly contributed to the death of Hannah, but she is clearly the one who is actually responsible for taking her life… Christ, however, was really put to death by others; and we ourselves are indirectly responsible for His death, at least insofar as we are sinners standing in need of that death, which He chose for our sake. So each and every one of us is one of His “reasons why.” He speaks to us now, but unlike Hannah Baker, He is alive and is waiting for us to speak back. And once you realize that, it is much more powerful than a suicide note could ever be.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: thumbnail from Netflix’s trailer for its show, 13 Reasons Why

The Dark Knight of the Soul: Fortitude in the Batman

Behold, a humorous essay I recently wrote for a moral theology class, with some slight edits. Enjoy!

Mr. Bruce Wayne had a troubled childhood. Not only did he lose his parents to a crazed gunman, but he also fell into a deep well full of bats. The former occasioned the inheritance of vast amounts of wealth, while the latter occasioned an intense case of chiroptophobia (fear of bats). Together, these effects would eventually lead him to undertake a massive bat-themed vigilante project which would dominate his life and cause a complicated set of benefits and drawbacks in Gotham City. The question is: whether the act of becoming the Batman was an act of true fortitude on the part of Bruce Wayne?

What is clear is that in Batman’s vigilante project there is matter for fortitude, namely, dangers of death. “Now fortitude is a virtue; and it is essential to virtue ever to tend to good; wherefore it is in order to pursue some good that man does not fly from the danger of death.” (1) Wayne, of course, is choosing to fly toward dangers of death, and literally at that. With countless thugs, gang leaders, and dastardly supervillains, Gotham is anything but safe; and this is not even to mention the means which Wayne adopts for fighting crime, which includes jumping off skyscrapers and careening in between all kinds of obstacles, supported by some mesh wings. He is doing battle with criminals who might kill him, in a way that might kill him. “Dangers of death occurring in battle” are the proper matter for fortitude, beyond lesser evils like bodily pain or the annoyance of standing in line at the DMV. (2)

It seems that Wayne might have gone to a vicious extreme in overcoming his own private chiroptophobia by becoming “half bat.” Yet there is really nothing to fear about bats in themselves, so to fear bats at all seems to be a case of timidity. This means that overcoming such a fear is a good thing to do. In facing his repressed traumatic experience of nearly dying in the well, which became so closely associated with the well’s bats, Wayne becoming Batman would only tend towards a vicious neurosis if his new bat-persona did not serve some purpose beyond itself. That is to say, if Wayne habitually dressed up like a bat in his own house and looked in the mirror, this would be disordered. Taking on the bat-persona for the sake of intimidating criminals, which is his primary motivation, is something else entirely.

Wayne does not become Flowerman or Butterflyman or Puppyman, he becomes Batman. Even if he had had traumatic experiences with flowers and butterflies and puppies, surely he would not want to deal with those memories in the same way. The idea of a vigilante qua bat (or alternatively qua spider) is simply terrifying, which is the point: it is an effective aid to fighting crime. This, however, does not necessarily make it prudent, as prudence means that justice and other virtues are not being violated. Here we will simply mention the possibility that vigilantism is unjustifiable in Gotham, given that there are good cops like Commissioner Gordon around. If Wayne had not considered this, or had not considered the physical risks involved, then the decision would be imprudent regardless of whether it is just. Becoming a vigilante virtuously requires serious counsel and an understanding of the principles of law. (3)

There are certain appearances of fearlessness and daring throughout the career of Batman, but one must wonder if this is merely a result of having mastered the fear of death during his time training in the mountains with the League of Shadows. On the contrary, Wayne goes to great lengths to protect himself, investing in the production and maintenance of extremely sophisticated protective devices, and this could exonerate him at least of fearlessness. Batman, supposing his project is just, certainly ought to fear death, not just for his own sake, seeing as life is a great good, but also for Gotham’s sake: “Death and whatever else can be inflicted by mortal man are not to be feared so that they make us forsake justice: but they are to be feared as hindering man in acts of virtue, either as regards himself, or as regards the progress he may cause in others.” (4) This is also part of why concealing his true identity is so important, for if it was widely known that Batman is Bruce Wayne, he would be easier to destroy.

As for magnanimity, Wayne already has great honors, insofar as honors accrue to a man of enormous wealth such as himself. Ironically, his public identity as a billionaire is a cover for what he really lives for privately, which is the accomplishment of great things like deposing crime bosses and deterring supervillains at great personal risk. He accepts the “unofficial honors” that come with such acts, but he does not care for them for their own sake, so he is not ambitious. He takes on the project to give the city of Gotham hope, which is where he refers the glory given to him as Batman. Therefore, Batman has a degree of magnanimity. (5) There is, however, an element of Wayne’s public life that is pusillanimous, as he purposefully distances himself from seeming great by being an arrogant, dishonest, quarrelsome womanizer. He could gain more honor publicly by being more virtuous, but he rightly fears that this could lead to the suspicion that he is Batman. Insofar as this component of concealing his nocturnal activities is vicious, it is neither magnanimous nor fortitudinous, as sins cannot be called acts of virtue.

The crime fighting skills of Wayne are second to none, and since he has ordered his life and vast wealth towards crime fighting without compromising his fortune or social status, he most certainly deserves to be ascribed the virtue of magnificence. For, “[It] belongs to magnificence not only to do something great, ‘doing’ (facere) being taken in the strict sense, but also to tend with the mind to the doing of great things.” (6) Since Wayne could do almost anything he wants on account of his wealth, the good use of which is the proper object of magnificence, his mind certainly tends with great force toward the accomplishment of masterful crime fighting. (7) Otherwise he would do whatever it is that other billionaires do.

To the question, whether Bruce Wayne’s choice to become Batman was an act of true fortitude, we answer is the affirmative, with two qualifications. The first is that the entire vigilante project is just, which is unclear. The second is that the artificial public persona taken on as part of the condition for the project, which can be assumed to have been part of the means from the start, is at least mildly vicious and therefore reduces the fortitudinous character of the choice.

(1) STh II-II q. 123 a. 5 ans.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Namely, gnome and epikeia would be required. See STh II-II q. 51 a. 4; q. 120 a. 1, a. 2

(4) STh II-II q. 126 a. 1 rep. 2

(5) That his voice is extraordinarily deep is not a sign of greater magnanimity, it is merely another component of his intimidation, as well as a way to conceal his public identity. Furthermore, that he does not walk slowly to accomplish his tasks does not imply a lack of magnanimity, as the particular kind of great things which he seeks to accomplish demand agility.

(6) STh II-II q. 134 a. 2 rep. 2

(7) STh II-II q. 134 a. 2

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Animation & Iconography

There is a charming story told about St. Bernadette, the Lourdes visionary. After the apparitions were well over, people wanted to know what Mary looked like, especially to construct a statue for the Grotto. She gave a sculptor as many details as she could remember, but the result dissatisfied her: “That is not Our Lady!” She was then brought all kinds of paintings – Our Lady of This and That, and whatnot. None of them matched her memory. Finally, she picked up a picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. “That is the Blessed Virgin!”

Desprestaur
Our Lady of Perpetual Help

The “non-realism” of icons, at its root, is a sign of respect for the mystery of the holiness of the subject being depicted. It leaves something to the imagination, as if to say “it is impossible to depict the reality, you must go find it for yourself.” It is revelation through negation, perhaps what we could call a “weak apophatic” mysticism. The medium also allows for one to emphasize certain features of a subject as a symbol.

Icons are never “drawn” or “painted,” they are always “written,” like a word. The goal is not to capture the reality so much as it is to start one down the right path to a real encounter with the subject, and ultimately with God. There is great value in this. We would find it odd to have a devotional picture of someone posing as the Blessed Mother… We do not find it odd to have an icon, which is “less realistic” but is still somehow much more accurate, as St. Bernadette would affirm.

One might call to mind many scriptural corollaries to this – the ubiquitous treatment of “seeing God” as difficult or impossible, the veil over Moses’ face, the gradual progression from Law to Spirit… And, if you pay close attention to the Gospels, almost no miracle of Christ takes place in direct visibility – it’s always in the midst of chaos, in a storm, in a cloud, inside a body, etc. This is why a scene like this – while well done in other ways – might feel a little “off”:

If this is what His miracles looked like, He may as well have flown around Jerusalem (Mt. 4: 5-7) and been done with it.

This whole issue of the delicacy of mystical imagery is particularly poignant in film, where actual people who we know are not “real” become stand-ins: they do the walking, talking – all of it. Sometimes this is helpful. But no matter how good an actor or director is, you know that “this is not how it actually looked, and that’s not actually Jesus/Mary/etc.” If you want an “authentic picture,” you have to do more work in a way because you need to deconstruct what is being shown and then stick to a mostly shapeless image in your mind.

For these reasons, I want to suggest that the art of animation gets a largely undeserved bad rap, or is at least not given enough serious attention.

This is an absolutely wonderful bit from The Prince of Egypt. The film has a pretty killer soundtrack, but the step back from the “big orchestra” pieces here is particularly effective. The lyrics are a play off of the song which is sung by Moses and the Israelites after the crossing of the Red Sea. Most important, however, is the symbolic imagery – notice especially the moment at 0:38, as a type of the Crucifixion. All of this achieved through “a kid’s medium”… Still very moving, no?

Compare and contrast with the same scene from a live-action film (go to about 1:14:00):

Here is another example of religious animation done extremely well, telling the story of Bl. Joan of Aza giving birth to her son, St. Dominic:

This short wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t animated. Think about it. There’s an ethereal character to it that allows for the strange to be beautiful in a way that live-action characters would render impossible. (It would end up looking more like this, which wouldn’t seem right.)

These are just a few examples. But it is clear that the “unreal” can achieve certain goods that the “real” can’t, especially with spiritual realities which are distant (or “unreal”) to our intuitions.

In art class in elementary school, we often thought the goal of painting, drawing, etc. was to make the work look as similar to the subject as possible. Maybe this attitude never quite left some of us. And maybe it’s time it did, especially if we are using art to evangelize or catechize.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

There was no music on Calvary

Chances are, you’ve heard of St. Ignatius Loyola. Chances also are that you have tried his oft-recommended technique of meditation involving placing yourself in some scriptural scene, trying to imagine all the details of what is going on around you.

This is certainly a good method for reflecting on Scripture, but we 21st century Christians typically have a roadblock to achieving the real purpose of this exercise. It is a case of art revealing and concealing the truth simultaneously… We usually want to “cinematize” what we imagine.

This is easily proven. If you were asked to place yourself at the Mount of Olives during the Ascension, you would probably be tempted to insert a soundtrack at least, and maybe even some crazy angles and close-ups of wide-eyed apostles. But this is just not how we experience real events. So why would we try to experience the Gospel in this way? If I asked you to imagine eating breakfast, there wouldn’t be any orchestral accompaniment. When you start to dream about going home after a long day at work, are your kids running in slow-motion to embrace you? Maybe this type of dramatization opens up a place in ourselves that allows for a greater emotional response, which certainly can quicken true devotion up to a point, but eventually we might find ourselves responding more to the “art” than to God. Of course, this is a new phenomenon, since film is a new art form.

This scene from Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is pretty well done. But try watching it once with the sound, and once without. Notice the difference – perhaps the one is more emotional, but perhaps the other is more spiritual. (One day I would love to make a short film about some incident in the Life of Christ with no “fluff”… No music, dramatic lighting, slow motion, etc.)

The “silence and normalcy” of the events in the Life of Christ highlight His Incarnation – Jesus is really human, and, like other humans, does not have built-in theme music, a wind-machine on hand (that incident on the Sea of Galilee notwithstanding), or a traveling make-up crew.

The truth is that we are all outdone in spiritual maturity by Elijah. If we weren’t taken in by the storm, we would have been enthralled by the earthquake. If that didn’t get us, we would have bowed down at the fire. But Elijah knew it was the small whisper of wind that was the voice of the Lord.

It is significant for us Christians that Elijah encounters this voice at Horeb, where all those same kinds of things had happened before with Moses and actually were true representations of the voice of God. It seems that in general God becomes quieter and quieter throughout the course of Scripture and salvation history… Paradoxically, the quieter He becomes, the closer we can get to Him.

Sometimes a little fire or earthquake is fine, but often it is a snare. The true life of the spirit is quiet, invisible, and secret. Just as the flesh of the Son of God concealed His Divinity on the cross while simultaneously revealing it, our outer life conceals and reveals our deepest interior life; and since the interior life is what matters most, our default habit ought to be to deal with it directly insofar as it is possible. If we feed the spirit, that will shine forth in our flesh (just ask Moses). On the contrary, expending too much energy enhancing our outer lives through entertainment and pleasures leaves our interior life hanging high and dry – though sometimes people can be tricked into thinking that a fun and “rewarding” life is sure evidence of holiness and Divine affirmation of one’s choices (or even mistakenly branded by well-meaning persons as critical tools of the New Evangelization). Hormones, seratonin, and even genuine spiritual consolations are not the real substance of the spiritual life, they are only afterthoughts and can even be obstacles to growth. The really good stuff is quiet, and sometimes without a drop of sensible devotion. This is a bit like how cinematizing the Life of Our Lord can, in a way, rob it of some of its power. That isn’t to say there is no place for it, just as sometimes God really does bless us materially, but it ought not be the primary way we try to encounter the Almighty.

There was screaming, crying, and there were even a few words, but there was no music on Calvary.

 

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Fra Angelico