Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book Review - The Power and the Glory

It is sad to watch the Mexicanization of the Southwest. It's not a reversion to its original status. That was Spanish in flavor, and had very few people within its borders. Civilization found its way there through science, infrastructure and engineering, and a bipartisan effort opened the floodgates. Can we at least talk about Mexico? If we cannot discuss the cartels and dysfunction, reading up on the past may be nice. Those "natural conservatives" with their Catholicism can be read in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. Can religion inspire and still have mystery even if human? Yes, read this book and get a taste for faith, ritual and community.

This novel, by a Catholic convert, is set in Mexico during the 1930s when the Catholic Church was being repressed by the government. Not modern prog complaints about oppression. This was true blue, "stop services, secularize or kill priests, destroy the altars" type repression. The story follows a little priest on the run, trying to make his way out of the state. His journey is complicated by his status as a priest, and the duty that comes with it. The beauty of that is no matter his failings as a man, he still feels honor bound to perform his duties and rituals for his oppressed flock. Despite the state's best efforts, the people will not let go of the rituals. The priest's appearance means he can take confession, can baptize children and can make simple bread the body of Christ. You lollygagged for years to get your kid baptized and "picked" a church? These people were waiting for him to feel whole. Not so much him, but waiting for a man of God endowed with the proper powers. The people in Mexico are true believers, and they need this man's power to feel they are living properly. These are artificial powers given to a man with flaws, but the people still all believe. There are sacrifices, a Judas figure, a makeshift family, near misses, escapes, and in the end, a hint of resurrection.

Mexico's attack on the Church is a memory hole era for progressive history. You are not going to believe this, but after a revolution, a bunch of commies created a constitution that explicitly attacked the Church and its power. Note the mandatory, secular education system the constitution mandates. I have to love how even Wikipedia says the constitution influenced the Soviets and the Weimar constitution. Nothing says success like those two nations. Of course they would go after the Church, and this dragged on for decades, with a peak in the Maximato era. It’s the same playbook, just a different nation. "Destroy all non-prog groupings that create bonds and social power not through prog approved channels". Oh wait, the Mexican leadership was fascist, so they were not "communist" just a different branch of leftist focused on state power. The Church survived, which Greene did not know in the '30s, but we know now. It is cliche but this book drills the point home that a Church is not the beauty of its cathedrals, but the faith within the hearts and souls that build those temples to God.

Ayn Rand made Ellsworth Toohey, the ultimate cathedral press subversive agent, but Greene does a great job with the embodiment of the prog government official. The lieutenant is a great stand in for the standard issue modern commie. He is a true believer spitting out programmed language. He is a commissar more than a military man. He wants to give the same gifts to the people as the Church but without the hypocrisy and corruption, arf arf, prog talk, blah blah. If you consider the book set in the 1930s, he would have been a child during the revolution, and a first generation dipped in commie indoctrination. The envy at the heart of much progressive politics is evident in his lines. He anger at the church so pitch perfect for the anti-church forces of 2015. The core of these leftists never changes, it just finds a new, ever leftward item to latch onto. Breaking progressives and leftists entire belief system to “Fuck you dad”, and where appropriate on a macro level “Fuck you God”, is embodied in the Lieutenant. This is even more interesting as Greene would spend the '60s awkwardly apologizing for or supporting Castro and MI6 traitor Kim Philby. Greene's lieutenant is a misguided true believer, possibly, and Greene may have viewed Castro and Philby in a similar manner.

The politics of the book should not take you away from noticing the beauty of the book. This is not Blood Meridian, but the beauty of the language used for setting the scene and describing Mexico is excellent. I am a small town guy, so I loved reading about the small town people, the familiarity and reality of the rural people. There is joy in the simple and small, and beauty in the rustic. There is a way Green does not condescend to reveal their world, and it is in showing the loyalty, the shared experience, and the faith that these people have. You can understand their tough lives, but not pity them. The honor and pride they feel in experiencing mass is clearly expressed, and if anything, it helps us 21st century readers see that mass and Christ is not about you. It is about serving Him, honoring Him, and experiencing it within your community. When you have nothing, you still can have that community experience and those rituals. All cultures have priests of some sort, and as the progressive attack on religion ratchets up in America, we must remember it is not just the priest that makes the experience and community, but it is the community of believers. The priest, for all his faults, becomes the momentary anchor for each town he visits. Greene works this well, draws you in, and gets you invested on that little priest making it to safety.

Greene weaves different story lines and characters into the narrative with purpose. The doubting Thomas young boy, rolling his eyes at his mom's religious stories, has a purpose to the book, and closes the book with the act that lets you know the faith will outlast the regime. The priest has his run ins and escapes from the regime's clutches, but the story is bigger than him, even if it is his life that we the reader become wrapped up in. There is only one ending though, and you can feel it. Redemption, martyrdom, resurrection and destiny are all steady features in Catholic thought. What are the miracles that make a saint? What makes someone holy versus another? This story lays it out there for debate and to clear a path. A flawed priest for a flawed people read by flawed readers. You know how it will end, and you want the spiritual journey within the priest to reach finality. After wrestling with his faith, duty and soul, can he be ready for the next step? As laid out on these pages, I hope we can all have as fulfilling a journey no matter the audience, and no matter the ending.


Scott's Bluff said...

Good explanation about the role religion plays in the lives of ordinary people. I’ve seen this pull the Church has over men and women as submission :pua: to the big man upstairs or having a good word in with God, and also providing ritual touchstones for community or at least family.

Can Indians be good Catholics? The belief system for them probably doesn’t scrape past the surface of superficial God worship. I was on a reservation once (next to a casino, natch) and stepped out of their cathedral to witness a spectacle of men in full Native American headdress dancing in the “town square”, so to speak. Maybe Catholicism is the adopted religion but their thede is still Indian and brings along with it the preferred ancestor worship.

Cinema acted as the replacement for church gatherings. You haven’t seen a spiritual awaking until you’ve seen a drunken Mick rolling down the center aisle with an open box of Juju fruits shooting out every which way.

And video games too. Ever watch the documentary King of Kong? Good movie. It reveals this whole video game subculture I had no idea existed. It’s a subculture of nerds you wouldn’t have ever known about and the plot, a David and Goliath rivalry, is gripping.

Portlander said...

+1 on the Toohey post. Rand hit the nail on the head with that one.

I was always surprised that Atlas Shrugged got so much more attention than Fountainhead. The latter has everything one needs to know in an excellent story of half (a third??) the pages. What else needed to be said?

In my older and more cynical age, I think it's no accident. The Toohey types know Fountainhead cuts too close to home for them, so they use Atlas to distract the masses knowing most will never finish and give up on the whole subversive affair.

It's akin to the Fed centering all the discussion around interest rates while the real issue is deficit spending, exponential credit growth, and ultimately the crony bail-outs both provide cover for.

peterike said...

Haven't read Greene in ages. Maybe should pull "Power and Glory" out again.

"Monsignor Quixote" is another good Greene novel about a priest.

Yeah, I really should read more Greene.

nikcrit said...

Yeah, I really should read more Greene.

The Unquiet American is a good one, IMO, though i haven't read much of his other stuff for context.

Warning peterike: in that book, critics say Greene brandishes his talent for Asian-American mind-meld perspective, whose physical manifestation you famously characterized in earlier posts as 'chinklattos.'

Some contemoporary critical comparison and contrast: