Being Consumed is organized into four sections, each treating a different pair of concepts that we tend to see as oppositional, but that a new vision of economics might question, integrate, or reconfigure. One section, “Freedom and Unfreedom,” questions the implicit assumptions our economic systems make about the nature of being free. Are we free, as we usually assume, when we have no restrictions on how we can act? Freedom, Cavanaugh counters, is not about having unlimited options or total control, but having the opportunity to choose things that make humans flourish rather than things that harm them. Right now, “there are no common ends to which our desires are directed.” We have no collective conception of what is good for individuals and communities. And so, “in the absence of such ends, all that remains is the sheer arbitrary power of one will against another.” Cavanaugh discusses how the decisions we make are not as free as we think: they are characterized by imbalances of power, lack of information, or inadequate options. “What is required is a substantive account of the end of earthly life and creation so that we may enter into particular judgments of what kinds of exchanges are free and what kinds are not,” he writes. Perhaps Catholic leaders do not have the expertise to dictate policy, but they are amply qualified to answer the questions of human flourishing that should inform policy.
In other sections of the book, Cavanaugh explores “detachment and attachment,” “global and local,” and “scarcity and abundance.” He addresses our attachment to things but detachment from their production and social effects, the disposability of people and things, the homogenization of global tastes, and the inherent assumption economics makes about scarcity of resources. These issues are inescapable, Cavanaugh claims, if the Gospel account of human well-being is taken seriously. And if the Gospel is true, “the Christian vision of economics that animates this book is not impractical but may be in fact the most practical of all ways to live out the Christian life.”
It’s difficult to imagine Jeb Bush and Cavanaugh agreeing on economic issues. But one belief they do share: that, in Jeb’s own words, we can look to religion for “making us better as people.”
Shusaku Endo’s Silence
Ellen B. Koneck, Community & Events Manager
Fittingly, my Lent began with Silence.
It was inadvertent: I’d placed the famous 1966 novel on the syllabus for early March so that my students—sophomores and juniors in my Great Books in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition seminar—could spend time reading the assignment over their spring break.
Shusaku Endo, called “the Graham Greene of Japan,” had been on my must-read list for many years, but with more urgency recently, since I prefer to read a text before seeing a film’s adaptation of it. But there is no motivator (alas) like the fear of facilitating seminar discussion on an unfamiliar work; I finally cracked open the novel just as we entered the Lenten season.
Silence is the story of two 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan during a period of intense Christian persecution. They have learned that their mentor, Fr. Ferreira, has apostatized, and they are incredulous that such a man would ever deny his faith. The priests—Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garrpe—are motivated by zealous belief and an earnest desire to serve the Japanese, but also, subtly, by pride, the desire for a glorious martyr’s death, and a fraught (perhaps inevitable) Messiah complex.
Expectations of glory are overturned, replaced by its cruel inverse: monotony. A complicated and haunting portrait of faith and doubt emerges. God does not give consolation; God does not confirm the work of the missionaries or the sacrifices of the Japanese martyrs. Indeed, God seems not only silent, but apathetic to the needs and the plight of the Christians in this land. After witnessing a gruesome martyrdom, Rodrigues writes, “I myself do not understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”
Reading Silence with forty college students enriched my own experience with the novel. Some of them seemed taken aback by their own frustration with Endo’s nonresponsive God, and worked hard to draw meaning out of God’s silence rather than accept the alternative. For others, it was the first time they had permission to wonder about God’s assumed goodness—and even those initial queries were blunted: God sort of, kind of seems to be acting like a jerk… is that okay to say? (at which point I like to remind them that the Book of Job is in the canon). But the greater shock for them, more than the positing of doubt about God’s benevolence, was that someone could brazenly question God’s existence. A general apathy about religion and God overall seems more acceptable to them than a believer questioning the tenets of his or her faith. Doubt is a greater scandal than disbelief.
I wondered about this. I know from experience (as I suspect do many of you) that Christian theological precepts or abstract comforts—like Heaven, or the Communion of Saints—can take on a distant, cartoonish absurdity in the face of tragedy or monotony, and that doubting suddenly feels easier. Endo masterfully renders the slow, lurking nearness of nihilism that can catch even the most pious by surprise. But the temptation to doubt—the urge to laugh at the prospect of God or give in to the allure of a meaningless universe—are in church settings paid less attention than temptations rooted in discrete acts: one angry thought, two white lies, and so on. Theologians sometimes interpret the first sin in this way: doubt that God had humanity’s best interest in mind when forbidding the fruit of one particular tree; doubt, in effect, about the benevolence and justice of God. This doubt—especially in Endo’s telling of it—is the fundamental temptation. Perhaps it is the primacy and proximity of doubt that makes it feel so scandalous to acknowledge.
Susan Orlean’s The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup
Kate Massinger, Commonweal Intern
When I read this book on the train, I catch other passengers peering at its cover. Susan Orlean’s 2001 anthology, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, is eye-catching, bound in glossy mustard. On the front cover is a glamour shot of the author, wearing a feathery black dress and clutching a velvet cape. Orlean has orange hair, red lips, and a Blue Steel pout. She’s posed as a matador, and her eyeliner looks great.
But Orlean herself isn’t the bullfighter—actually, Cristina Sanchez is. Sanchez, a professional fighter who spends nights in Madrid rings, is one of the many subjects Orleans has profiled over her decades as a journalist. Bullfighter is an anthology of these portraits, twenty-two in all, with Cristina’s story used for the title.
Many of Orlean’s characters live in New York—Jill, the powerhouse real estate agent who knows rents for every brownstone; Kwabena, the yellow-cab driver who’s also Ashanti royalty—but not all. One of my favorite profiles covers a pack of Maui surfer girls, all crowned with long, salty hair, eating pounds of teriyaki chicken and charging into waves. Orlean writes about famous people—the one-hit pop star known simply as Tiffany—and everyday folks—a clown called Silly Billy. The profiles are heavy on dialogue, bright with colors and tastes, quickly drawing readers into the worlds of girl bands, or high school basketball teams, or small-town newsrooms. The writing is playful; it revels in the diversity of human life. The book’s subtitle is My Encounters with Extraordinary People; the description fits.