I have lost count of the number of homilies in which I have been told that (a) Jesus was among the poorest of the poor and that (b) Jesus was illiterate. These claims seem nothing more to me than the crooning of over-zealous social justice warriors. To be sure, Christ was comfortable in the midst of the poorest of the poor and counted them as His own. But Scripture very clearly has Him reading from a scroll in the synagogue and expounding upon it, so He definitely was not illiterate.
And far from being a dumpster diver, Christ was a carpenter, a skilled laborer in wood and stone; a builder, an artisan, a man who owned tools and worked with His hands. It seems to me that His profession was neither incidental nor accidental to His mission. For indeed, He was a builder in every sense of His existence, both before and after His Incarnation. And speaking of that Incarnation, never was a being more fully integrated, more at home in His own skin so to speak, than was the God-man. As we enter into Holy Week, we do well to ponder that fantastic integration of God and man and how it came to pass that perfection itself was so maligned and rejected.
It is one thing to be hated, quite another to be hated for something you are not, and that is a phenomenon that is often attributable to a very common process: the creation of a strawman.
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The term strawman comes to us via the world of black magic and its use of effigies. An effigy is a crude replication of a person or thing, a representation intended as a stand-in for that person or thing in an occult ritual—for example, the casting of spells or curses. An effigy might be stabbed with needles, cut with knives, bashed about, or lit on fire.
Similarly, a strawman argument creates a false image of an idea, concept, person, or group of persons—an image designed to be easily maligned and, therefore, to be made the object of great hatred. The most common use of it is, of course, as a means of falsely discrediting persons or ideas, but even more insidious is it’s use against simple existential concepts.
For example, take the word utility. The devil loves to mess with words and mess us up in the process. Let’s add a couple of suffixes to utility and see what Mr. Webster has to say about utilitarianism:
a doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences.
Or, more specifically: a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Consistent with all things wrought by Satan, utilitarianism has no concern for the dignity or personal rights of the individual; it is thin cover for the-end-justifies-the-means arguments, wherein people themselves become means to an end. My point is that the appropriation of the word utility for evil purpose is the creation of a strawman to destroy appreciation of a natural good. That is to say that, as each generation ages and grows a bit savvier to the evil wrought by utilitarianism, the devil may still hope in enjoying the damage he has brought upon our understanding of the beauty of creaturely utility. A consistent theme with evil is that it is often just a perversion of something that is otherwise good—like utility.
“Honey, have you paid the utilities?” is a question that sometimes reverberates through a home with no little urgency, especially if we’ve just turned a faucet handle and gotten no water, or hit a switch but are still in the dark. The obvious utility of water and power are very good things indeed.
And what about us? I mentioned above that, in a utilitarian world view, people can become means to ends, but does that mean that we should shun esteeming the beautiful utility of our own design, the design so intricately wrought by Christ the builder? When we think of utilities, we think of plumbing and electrical. Surely it is not hard to see that men and women are plumbed differently, and for most of us it seems abundantly clear that there are some wiring differences as well. The highly integrated God-man produced highly integrated works of art.
Returning to our discussion of strawman arguments, we can see that the perversion of a word for nefarious purposes can become a strawman argument of sorts against an otherwise elegant and beautiful reality. Certainly, the differences—physical, mental, and emotional—between men and women are elegant realities of the human condition, the foundation of a complementarity unparalleled in creation.
And speaking of elegant and beautiful realities, we might do well to define just what exactly elegance is. For like any word in a living language, its meaning through misuse is often less than crystal clear.
a. Refinement, grace, and beauty in movement, appearance, or manners.
b. Tasteful opulence in form, decoration, or presentation.
a. Restraint and grace of style.
b. Scientific exactness and precision.
There is beautiful, multilevel, physio-emotional diversity and complementarity between a man and a woman; whereas, within any unnatural sexual pairing, there is only the diversity of relative emotional and mental stability and certainly no elegance of utility.
Matter matters. Whenever someone seems overly serious about something, we ask, “What’s the matter?” The reality of Socrates and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Newton and Einstein is the same reality as that of the blacksmith and the carpenter: it is a nuts and bolts reality. Objective reality starts with objects perceived by our five senses and builds from there. The human soul is the life force of the body; without flesh and bone, it is but a ghost.
Of course, conversely, without the soul the flesh is only a piece of meat. We are composite beings: flesh, blood, bone, and life force—endowed by the Spirit of the Living God. We are not just whatever we happen to imagine ourselves to be. There can be no utility in that—no destiny, no beauty, no elegance, no complementarity.
The demons covet and despise our physical elegance. The soul reigns in its own dedicated realm, something demons can only acquire through demonic possession. Whenever there is an overemphasis on any aspect of our composition—physical, mental, or spiritual—evil forces are likely at work to create that imbalance. For example, we can easily see that undue focus on the physical—unchaste fashion, piercings, and tattoos—destroys the beauty and utility of the body, just as surely as does an undue stringency in subduing the flesh to the point of being injurious and irreverent.
Christ became man; he did not become an angel. He was born of a woman, not an angel. This did not go unnoticed by Satan. It could be said that the Incarnation really chaps the demon’s hide, but alas, he has none to chap. He was unsatisfied with his own nature, that of the messenger—Lucifer—the bearer of God’s light. All evil begins with dissatisfaction with one’s own nature. Just ask Eve.
Thus, the demon plays both ends of the spectrum: he is the utilitarian who hates utility; the diversity-monger who despises diversity; the sex-fiend nauseated by sex; the materialist who hates matter; the spiritualist who hates The Spirit.
The design, the purpose, the utility of a thing is God-given and, therefore, beautiful in its concept aside from any aesthetical consideration. Even human artisanal works of obvious utility: tools, implements, utensils, musical instruments, furniture, buildings, sporting goods, machines, vehicles—even weapons—have a beauty, an elegance of utility that is undeniable. We know that to be the truth because we often invest a great deal of time, talent, or money in perfecting the aesthetics of such objects to further enhance the beauty we already perceive.
And speaking of that adornment, it is, in great part, the incredible elegance and beauty of utility that is the attraction of nudity, a beauty of purpose so overwhelming that our sanity and morality demands attenuation of that elegance through clothing, an endeavor that holds a great fascination for many, in no small part, because there is a sort of sacredness about that which is designed to complement and enshrine the sacred.
However, that sense of the sacred is wanting in our times. Our current sack-like, clingy, revealing, bulging fashions; our pre-ripped, pre-faded jeans; and our sacrilegiously tattooed flesh scream our loss of respect for the sacred, a disrespect so profound that nudity itself—overwhelmingly beautiful on account of the body’s elegance of purpose—is often nearly obliterated by dirty-blue tattoos. Unlike the beasts, we are the only creatures created for ourselves, and yet there is a utility about our existence that speaks of our calling to serve God and each other: we are tools of divine origin which, in the hands of God, produce divine results.
Mass production has reduced our day-to-day contact with artistry, moving us from the workshop to the office, from the tactile work of our hands to the flooding of our minds with memos, schedules, reviews, meetings, inventories, futures, contracts, deadlines, and deliveries. Our art galleries have suffered the consequences, often containing nothing that could reasonably be expected to adorn any space to which it might be added. Jesus is The Word, but long before that title was given to Him by St. John, He was a humble carpenter who had great respect for His tools and immeasurable love for the work of His hands.
We must join our voices with the words of the psalmist: Prosper the work of our hands! (Psalms 90:17). Regaining an appreciation for the elegance of utility is foundational to recovering what we have lost. If we can once again come to see purpose and beauty in our own work, how vastly more might we come to see that elegance of purpose at the hands of the Almighty—elegance that shines in each of us. May we come to live as the spiritual and physical instruments of love and salvation we are designed to be.
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