Saturday, January 14, 2012

Criticizing Saints and John Carter of Mars

I just saw a trailer for the upcoming Disney movie on John Carter of Mars, which excited me to no end.  I totally loved the original novels, which were my introduction to classic Fantasy Sci Fi. I've been waiting for years for the books to be adapted to film. I think there was some horrible, cheezy version, but they really needed modern CG to make Barsoom come alive. Incidentally, the original novels were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame.

While the plot and the characters of the books held up extremely well, even after 100 years (They were first published in 1912.), certain underlying societal attitudes fare less well. Some of the language, especially in reference to Native Americans (you have to read the books to figure out how Native Americans figure into a story about Mars!), is racist by today's standards. And, although the books do a remarkable job of seeing beyond skin color for their time, there is a subtle undercurrent of superiority that still flows through the ink (or electronic pulses, since I reread them on my Kindle).

Which brings me to saints.  In particular, the criticism of saints from our modern vantage. A couple of days ago, I quoted a bit from my upcoming book on another way to view Mother Teresa's apparent lack of modern painkillers in his homes for the dying, saying that one has to understand where she comes from with regard to suffering before you judge too harshly.

This is a problem with many saints.  A lot of them would not fare well in today's world. For instance, St. Rose of Lima would probably be under psychiatric care for her propensity to self-mutilate. Others were accepting of norms we reject today, like slavery. Still others were so single-minded in their pursuit of the Divine, they were socially inept and even rude at times (the Cure of Ars, comes to mind.)
As we look at these people through our own lenses, we can be tempted to decide that they weren't really all that holy.  But we have to remember that they were living in their own time and place. We need to judge them, not by our standards, but by the standards they judged themselves.

Just as the John Carter stories need to be judged by the standards of the turn of the last century and appreciated for what they are, not what they should be today.

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