Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Easter is upon us.

From the time I was a child until the present day, I have always been amazed by how differently Americans generally and Christians particularly respond to Easter and Christmas. 

Christmas is impossible to avoid. Regardless of who you are, if you are a resident of the Western world, you have no choice but to reckon with Christmas.  The bonanza of films and television specials, the decorations, the festivities, the music—Christmas is ubiquitous. 

Easter, on the other hand, is not nearly so.  A person stands a better chance of sleeping his way through Easter than he does Thanksgiving or even, perhaps, Independence Day.  If your average Christian American wasn’t already habituated to this state of affairs, it could only strike him as bizarre.

By far and away, Easter Sunday is the most significant of holidays for the Christian.  Even Christmas assumes importance only in light of Easter.  After all, it is for the sake of the Resurrection that Christmas—the Birth of Christ—took place at all. 

By now, there is scarcely a soul, Christian or non-Christian, who isn’t familiar with the story of Easter.  Ironically, it is in no small measure because of this familiarity that we have become desensitized to what a truly marvelous story it is.  To appreciate it to the extent that it deserves, we must become reacquainted with Easter.  And to this end, we must approach it through new eyes.

According to the story of Easter, God, the Unconditioned Condition of all that is subjected Himself to the conditions of human existence.  The Impassable became passable, the Invulnerable vulnerable, the Incorruptible corruptible. Upon becoming a human being, the Ground and Author of all being voluntarily suffered and died.  And He suffered and died for the sake of the same love by which He created humanity (and everything else, for that matter). 

Yet while God loves us, it is crucial to recall that, as St. John tells us, God is Love.  The Easter story is the story of how Love—Infinite, Eternal Love—became a finite, temporal human being in order to teach other human beings how to perfect their own loving.  Through His Passion and Death Love made it unmistakable that the will to love is nothing more or less than the will to sacrifice all for the sake of one’s beloved.  When it is considered that there isn’t a single person for whom Christ did not offer His life as a sacrifice, we recognize that the formidability of love’s demand to give one’s life for the object of one’s love is even greater than previously thought, for Jesus’ example beckons us to love everyone: the world must be each person’s beloved.

Believe it or not, for as tall an order as this demand undoubtedly is, it is not insurmountable.  In fact, if we think about it for just a moment, we will recognize both that it resonates with us as well as why it resonates.

The experience of love is as familiar—and universal—a human experience as any.  Not everyone loves equally well but we are all equal in having loved. Now, regardless of who or even what we have loved, there can be no denying that love comes at the cost of pain. To love anything is to turn oneself over to it—and this means that the lover exposes him or herself to the inescapability of being hurt.

There is a real sense in which each time we dare to love we will to give up our lives for the objects of our love.  Lovers invest their resources in time, labor, and energy—in short, their lives—in their beloved—in spite of the losses that they know they will inevitably suffer.  It isn’t just that, as Robert Frost said, “nothing gold can stay;” even in the midst of their love there will be pain.  There are moments when we feel more alone in the presence of our loved ones than when they are no longer with us.  Those who we love disappoint, anger, and sadden us, and with each of these experiences, there is the experience of having been betrayed—the experience of suffering a small death.  

Yet still, we continue to love.   

The Christian is heartened because he believes in Easter. He knows that his Lord, his God, has experienced what he has been experiencing his whole life.  “No servant is greater than his master,” Jesus declared.  The Christian is inspired to continue loving in the face of pain because Christ did the same.  The Passion narrative brings into crystal clear focus the brute fact that whatever injustices we think we have endured, Christ willingly endured them, but many times over. 

He was betrayed, and not just by Judas: His own family members and all of his Apostles, including and particularly those with whom He was closest, denied Him.  The legions of people to whose needs and hopes He attended throughout the duration of His ministry turned violently against Him in His hour of trial.  He was unjustly sentenced to be executed as a common criminal, but even as He was being hammered to a cross, He forgave His accusers and betrayers, and asked His heavenly Father to do the same.

While Jesus’ Passion and Death reveal love at its finest, it is really His Resurrection upon which Christian faith hinges, for it is through the Resurrection that Love’s indomitable character is unveiled.  Real, abiding love, God tells us through the Resurrection, is redemptive. Yes, the greatest lovers are those who suffer the greatest heartache, but all of the loss and suffering with which love is met, God reassures us, will be redeemed.  Even death has been rendered impotent by Love.

This is the promise of the Resurrection. 

Happy Easter!

 

 

By now, there are few people who are not familiar with talk of the “War on Christmas.”  The hyperbolic nature of this nomenclature aside, it springs from the observation of two undeniable facts: first, there is a sustained, concerted effort to marginalize, if not eradicate, the religious significance of this most celebrated of Christian—and American—holidays; second, this assault on Christmas belongs to a larger campaign to undermine the influence of Christianity over our popular culture. 

Nationally speaking, Easter isn’t nearly as grand a holiday as Christmas.  Christmas is a season that, from beginning to end, imbues everything it touches.  As a priest from my church once put it, it is impossible to escape Christmas.  Easter, though, devoid, as it is, of the endless supply of music, decorations, movies, and television shows characteristic of the Christmas season, has none of the latter’s ubiquity.  Indeed, a person could conceivably pass right through Easter Sunday without knowing it.  Such simply cannot be said of Christmas.

In spite of all of this, Easter is no less safe than Christmas vis-à-vis the project to dislodge our culture from the Christian traditions that have always informed it. 

Recently, my wife and I took our two year-old son to visit with the Easter Bunny—or so we thought.  When we arrived at the local mall, we discovered that it wasn’t the Easter Bunny with whom parents could have their children’s pictures taken; it was The Bunny who was the center of attraction.  And from what I have been able to gather, in substituting The Bunny for the Easter Bunny, our mall is not indulging its idiosyncrasies. 

There is more.  

My wife is a kindergarten teacher at a public school here in New Jersey.  As is the case in public schools throughout the nation, she and her colleagues are permitted to distribute goodies to their students on the occasion of Easter—as long as they do not mention Easter.  “Happy Springtime!” is now the acceptable salutation for this holiday. 

That for the better part of the last two millennia Western civilization has been virtually indistinguishable from Christianity will be denied only by either those who are ignorant of their inheritance or those who resent it.  The attempt to purge Easter of every last vestige of its religious character is a function of this larger enterprise to purge the West of all remaining traces of its Christian character.

In one sense, say, a symbolic sense, the popularity and the grandiosity of Christmas renders it a much larger obstacle than Easter to the achievement of the militant secularist’s aims.  Yet there is another sense, a psychological sense perhaps, in which Easter is more pivotal in this regard.

While Christians believe that Christmas commemorates the birth of God Himself, those who reject the doctrine of the Incarnation can still view Jesus’ birth as something worth celebrating.  All that is needed for this purpose is a belief, not in His divinity, but in his greatness.  Thus, in either discussing Christmas with one’s peers or teaching it to children, a reference to the birth of this wonderful man could for all practical intents suffice.

Such is not the case with Easter. 

Easter is nothing less than Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It is this event upon which Christianity hinges.  To paraphrase Saint Paul, if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, then there is no justification for our faith.  Ultimately, Christmas and Easter are inseparable episodes in The Greatest Story Ever Told; we can’t have one without the other.  But considered abstractly, Easter is by far the most religiously significant.  It is at that moment that the life and work of Christ reach their climax.  It is on Easter Sunday that the tides of world history are forever turned.  It is then that humanity receives its new lease on life, its liberation from both death and, thus, the fear of death.

This Easter we will serve ourselves and our world well by reminding ourselves and others of the reason for our celebration. 

Happy Easter!

 

So-called “same sex marriage” is the issue of the week.  The Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling on its constitutionality in the month of June.

My prediction: “same-sex marriage” will soon become the law of the land.

My reason for this is simple: Conservatives who claim to favor “traditional marriage,” “disbelieve” in “same sex marriage,” and oppose “the redefining” of marriage have ceded too much ground to their opponents.

And they have ceded this ground by speaking of traditional marriage (as if there was any other kind), their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman (as if this was a question of belief), and their opposition to the act of redefining marriage (as if it was within anyone’s power to define or redefine marriage).

In short, by way of their arguments (or non-arguments) against “same sex marriage,” conservatives actually reinforce the idea—long championed on the left—that institutions are “social constructs,” artifacts that government, or “society,” can create and destroy at will.

The problem with this reasoning is that if institutions, like marriage, really have been arbitrarily constructed by government, then there is no reason that they shouldn’t be deconstructed in the event that Equality or some other ideal demands this course.    

With an eye toward ascending from the mire of confusion in which far too many of us have been wading for far too long, I offer the following comments.

First, homosexuality may be the most moral, most natural, most divine-like activity in which human beings are capable of engaging.  No matter. The fact remains that marriage can no more accommodate homosexuals than bachelorhood can accommodate those who are married.

Just as bachelorhood is a state of being that inherently excludes the married, so too is marriage a state of being that inherently excludes homosexuals.  Thus, the language of “same sex marriage” is as self-contradictory, as ridiculous, as that of “married bachelorhood.”

To put it another way, “same sex marriage” is no marriage at all.   

Inseparable from this first point is another: This issue is not now, nor has it ever been, about “the redefinition” of marriage.  It is as impossible for you or I or the Supreme Court to redefine marriage as it would be for any of us to redefine bachelorhood. 

Human beings invent words, it is true, but our words are pointers, vehicles by which we express and relay concepts or ideas. This is crucial, for internal to each idea is its own logic that makes it the idea that it is.  So, for example, whatever word we choose to affix to the concept of a bachelor, the concept of a bachelor has always been and will always be the concept of an unmarried man.  Even if there are no bachelors, even if we somehow managed to drop the word “bachelor” from our vocabulary, never to use it again, the logic of the concept once denoted by this word would remain forever in tact: a bachelor could never be anything other than an unmarried man.

The case is much the same with the concept of marriage.  The government can choose to allow homosexual unions and endow them with the term “marriage.” And, in theory, the government can allow married people to regard themselves as “bachelors.”  In reality, however, the government can no more allow “same sex marriage” or “married bachelorhood” than it can decree that the world started yesterday.

Third, as points one and two make clear, it makes about as much sense to say that one “believes” that marriage is between a man and a woman as it does to say that one “believes” that only single men should be considered bachelors.  Marriage is what it is, an essentially heterosexual union.  It is not an object of belief; it is an object of knowledge.  

Finally, the supporters of “traditional marriage” must stop their talk of “traditional marriage.”  Besides lending legitimacy to the proposition that there are forms of marriage other than the heterosexual variety, the term “traditional marriage” is meaningless by reason of redundancy.  There is no traditional marriage.  There is only marriage.   

Like I said, these considerations aside, in all likelihood the government will eventually ascribe the label of “marriage” to those homosexuals who want for their unions to be recognized as such.  An ever growing number of people fail to see why anyone would or should have a problem with this.  But there is a problem.

Every change, however great or small, is purchased at a cost.  The loss of the familiar and the uncertainty regarding the new situation produced by a change are costs common to all changes.  Because of this, the prudent have always preferred changes that are small and gradual to those that are grand and transformative. 

Yet the kind of change in our marital arrangements that the Supreme Court is presently contemplating is a change of the latter kind: never in the history of the world has anything like it been conceived, much less seriously considered.  Only fools and liars would have us believe that there won’t be a substantial price to be paid for legalizing “same sex marriage.” 

Admittedly, I don’t think that marriage will suffer as a consequence of this.  Marriage is far more threatened by a hyper-sexualized popular culture, the ease with which divorces are pursued and granted, etc. Still, while marriage may be no worse off as a result of the legalization of “same sex marriage,” our liberty just may be. 

American liberty consists of all of the liberties laid out in our Constitution.  If any one of these liberties is threatened, the entire system is imperiled.  Now, freedom of religion is a fundamental liberty.  If it becomes unconstitutional to prevent homosexuals from “marrying” other homosexuals, then religious organizations that refuse to accommodate homosexuals along these lines may very well become convicted of acting unconstitutionally.  Hence, freedom of religion, along with freedom of conscience, will be forever lost.

This is anything but a far-fetched scenario.  Consider that the vast majority of the proponents of “same-sex marriage,” and virtually all of its most militant supporters, are located solidly on the left.  Then consider that for at least a couple of centuries, leftist revolutionaries and radicals have recognized religion to be the most formidable obstacle to their designs, for the religious insist upon deferring to an authority higher than that of the government.

What better way to weaken religion than to coerce its practitioners to submit to the state?  And what better way to coerce its practitioners than by threatening them with, not only legal penalties, but the threat of branding them for acting disreputably?

Thoughtful people, regardless of their religious, political, or sexual orientations, will realize that the issue of “same sex marriage” is not just, and not even primarily, about marriage.

Dallas began in 1978, when I was six years-old. The earliest memory I have of the show dates back to when the world became consumed with the question: Who shot J.R.?  The first episode that I can recall having watched is that which ends with Miss Ellie receiving the news that Jock’s plane had crashed in South America.  It was during that summer, when CBS reran the previous season of Dallas, that I became hooked.

Fast forward some 30 years or so later and here I am still tuning in faithfully to “the new Dallas” each week on TNT.  It says a lot that a television series that originated in a bygone era can still manage to command a strong, impassioned following.  Yet what exactly does it say?  The question concerning the shooting of J.R. Ewing has long since receded into the popular consciousness.  It is now to this question regarding the enduring allure of the trials and tribulations of the Ewings that the fans, no less than the writers and cast, of the new Dallas should turn.    

It should be stated from the outset that the time spent watching the new Dallas every Monday night is well rewarded.  Thus far, the series has not only matched, but exceeded, my expectations.  Moreover, inasmuch as the life of the original series could be said to be divided into two phases—pre-Dream Season and post-Dream Season—the new Dallas does justice to the former while distinguishing itself as a dramatic improvement over the latter. 

Simply put, Dallas never recovered after the death of Bobby Ewing—until now.

However, while Cynthia Cidre deserves congratulations for her conscientious treatment of Dallas, not unsurprisingly—she is human, after all—there is room for criticism.  However, it should be noted that the criticisms, offered as they are by a lifelong fan who wishes to see Dallas remain on the air, are offered in the most charitable spirit. 

Far from being the fare for the shallow pated that many made it out to be, Dallas is a show that is as intellectually as it is aesthetically satisfying.  Beautifully shot, it is also an intelligent show, for it provokes viewers to come to terms with the constellation of moral ambiguities that lurk within their own hearts.  And it succeeds in doing all of this because it has masterfully drawn upon and woven together some archetypical themes.

The first theme against the backdrop of which every other plot plays out is that of nature versus artifice, the land versus industry, the old and the new.  Each embodies a distinct vision of morality that sits uneasily with that embodied by the other. The morality of nature is resolutely non-utilitarian: nature, here, is viewed as something to be prized for its own sake.  The morality of artifice, in contrast, most definitely is utilitarian, for artifice is valued only as a means to some end or other beyond itself: power, wealth, fame, etc.

Yet Dallas puts flesh on the bones of these abstract moral types by centering upon another timeless theme: family.  The moralities of nature and artifice, though as contrary to one another as the human and the divine, together become incarnate in the Ewing clan.  As a result, the universality and impartiality of each is qualified by the particularity and partiality that marks the life of every family: the land and big business are alike to be valued because they are our land and our business.

More so than anything else, it is the fact that Dallas revolves around the joys and sorrows of a family that accounts for its massive and unrelenting appeal.  But it isn’t just any family that would’ve done the trick.  The Ewing family is just similar enough to our own families to engage our sympathies.  At the same time, it is dissimilar enough to elicit all of the interest that, as spectators, we reserve for sporting events and celebrities.

To be more specific, in spite of being a picturesque family on the outside, on the inside the Ewings are marked by joys and sorrows, fortunes and misfortunes, comparable to those experienced by virtually every family.  Most importantly, for all of the intra-familial conflicts that have threatened to tear it asunder, the Ewing family has always succeeded in maintaining its integrity through the love—even if not the like—that its members have for one another. 

In the process, the Ewings provide hope for our own families.

These are the themes that have always pervaded DallasAnd thanks to the laudable efforts of Cynthia Cidre, they continue to do so. 

However, so as to not lose this focus—and, hopefully, to strengthen it—I offer the following comments.

First, while the first season did a commendable job of blending the clashing legacies of Miss Ellie and Jock, nature and artifice, the land and Ewing Oil, if at all possible, more time should be invested into doing the same throughout the duration of the show.  Borrowing a page from the old series, maybe the new can provide us with a scene or two of Bobby and Christopher, say, and maybe even John Ross too, taking a break from the rigors of wheeling and dealing at Ewing Energies to attend a cattle auction, or to go on a cattle run or a hunting trip, as Bobby and J.R. did together and with their sons decades ago. 

Second, it is not at all clear who is even living at Southfork these days.  This should be established clearly, and then fans should be treated to just those homey scenes that originally endeared Dallas to them.  Scenes of the Ewings chatting—and fighting—over the events of the day as they share cocktails and convene at the dinner table are small but priceless ingredients of the success of this series. Still, so far, we haven’t seen any of this.

Third, since continuity with the old Dallas is critical for the new, there are gaps that need filling.  Although the notorious “dream season” became the butt of legions of jokes, Dallas fans were upset with it because they felt cheated.  The series’ continuity was radically undermined when Pam awoke to discover the deceased Bobby alive and well in her shower.  Fans invest thought and emotion into following the characters from one plot to the next.  When this flow is disturbed, however, the program’s unity is compromised.

That being said, at least Dallas fans knew exactly where they stood when season nine was revealed to have been a dream.  With the new Dallas, matters are otherwise.

We know that, as far as Cynthia Cidre is concerned, the two television Dallas films from the ‘90’s were never supposed to have taken place (doubtless, a good thing!).  Yet it would appear that there are some aspects of the original series that we are supposed to forget about as well.

The last we saw of Sue Ellen, she left for Europe to be with another man.  Then, not all that long afterwards, we hear that she married him.  Since the new Dallas began, there hasn’t been so much as a hint as to what occurred there. 

This, however, is pretty easily explainable: Sue Ellen got divorced and moved back to the States (but let’s explain it anyhow, ok?).  The case of Cliff Barnes, though, is more difficult to discern.

When Dallas left the air 22 years ago, Cliff Barnes became the owner of Ewing Oil.  But today, we encounter a Cliff Barnes that, while controlling his own company, is more determined than ever to take over Ewing Energies.  In the most recent episode of Dallas, Bobby explains to Christopher and John Ross that Cliff’s company, “Barnes Global,” was bequeathed to him and Cliff’s two sisters, Katherine and Pam, by their mother. But in the original series, Cliff’s mother left him “Wentworth Tool and Dye.” After Pam and Katherine both disappeared, Cliff then sold it right before Bobby made him a partner in Ewing Oil. 

These may be only apparent inconsistencies, but considering that the Barnes-Ewing feud has been (brilliantly) resurrected for a new generation, it is important that they be resolved.

Fourth, keeping with this theme of continuity, it’s good that the new Dallas has brought back characters from the old.  It would be even better, though, if they were given some meatier scenes as opposed to one or two line cameos.  For example, during “JR.’s Masterpiece,” an exchange between the three brothers—Bobby, Gary, and Ray—over how JR’s life and death impacts them could have fit very nicely.

Finally, John Ross and Christopher are now the new Cain and Abel of DallasYet neither has thus far been able to evoke the affections from fans that their fathers easily commanded.

To put it bluntly, both come across as spoiled brats with immense chips on their shoulders.  More frequently than not, both have scowls on their faces, even if Christopher’s is a function of self-righteousness while John Ross’s reflects his anger at the world.  This isn’t to say these characters are without their share of redeeming qualities; nor is it to deny that, fortunately, there is already some indication that they might be coming into their own at some time in the near future. 

But as of yet, they are devoid of all of the charm and likability of their fathers.  There is much maturing left to be done for both.

To repeat, Cynthia Cidre deserves kudos for her respectful and imaginative handling of an iconic television program.  The forgoing comments and criticisms are offered in the spirit of a friend, a lifelong fan, who wants nothing more than for her to be able doing what she is already doing so well.

*This is scheduled for publication at UltimateDallas.com, a site well known to the writers, cast, and crew of Dallas.