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The pope and an atheist walk into a bar …

The pope and a pro-choice, atheist, lesbian academic walk into a bar to talk about art … and they agree on almost everything.

This is no joke if the atheist is famed intellectual and social theorist Camille Paglia. Known as a controversial feminist writer who has managed to infuriate people of every political stripe and hue, Paglia appears to have a problem with veracity: She is much too honest and not at all politically correct.

In the last decade Paglia stunned “progressive” academics and feminists with statements that left them shaking their heads or plotting revenge. Fascinated with popular culture and almost a literal “worshipper” of films and stars, Paglia writes on her favorites – such as Madonna and Joni Mitchell – and has plenty of pronouncements on culture and arts, including declaring that our universities are full of phonies and poseurs, Western art has been anemic and dying since the 1960s and that only religion will save the arts.

To prove her point, Paglia cites Cecil DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” as an example of a great epic film that moves the audience in ways modern films can’t even compare. She links literary giants such as Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne to the “poetical” inspiration of the King James’s Bible. Terrifying, hellfire sermons are related to America’s theater and popular literature, specifically Jonathan Edward’s fiery rhetoric and radio host Rush Limbaugh.

In a 2007 speech aired by CSPAN, “Religion and the Arts in America,” Paglia gets passionate about American religious music and its export across the globe. She suggests hymns and gospel music set the stage for more than jazz and rap but passed down patriotism, cultural beliefs and helped end slavery.

“Without the hymns of the ‘great awakening’ in America,” she states, “there is no Elvis and no James Brown.”

Valuing the grandeur, expressiveness and cultural history in hymns so much, this atheist insists “hymnody” become a separate genre of the fine arts, required in schools and “added to the basic college curriculum.” I can see the entire ACLU staff having convulsions already.

Paglia pushes for recognition of “passionate and histrionic” African-American gospel music as America’s native grand opera. This makes perfect sense in an era that insists on elevating narratives of even the most recent immigrant but hasn’t yet happened because they contain the loaded lyricism of God, redemption and Christianity. Bold suggestions like these almost never come from a pulpit or religious spokesman, having been beat down to submission long ago by the tactics of the IRS and media demigods.

“I think religious thinking is crucial to understanding the universe,” Paglia says while explaining the need for generational reverence in America and a spiritual center.

She insists progressives start by recognizing the “spiritual poverty” of contemporary secular humanism. Turning the tables on left-wingers and Marxists, Paglia charges that modern liberalism “automatically defines human aspiration and human happiness in reductively economic terms.” They always have, but it’s been their mantra against conservatives for years.

Paglia prescribes not just a dollop of spirituality but that comparative religion be required by schools, emphasizing that Judeo-Christianity is our cultural background and foundation. Oddly Paglia does this with extreme disinterest as an ex-Catholic who claims to personally believe in “all gods” and doesn’t have any problem with suicide, drug use, prostitution and sodomy among other things.

In stating that religion alone will save “great art,” Paglia rejects the majority of modern art theory with a sweep. Religion is generally dismissed out of hand or ignored in modern art criticism – archaic concepts such as “greatness” flushed down the toilets of deconstruction along with other comparisons that may be tainted with hierarchal, judgmental or otherwise “evil” Western thinking and standards.

Why pay attention to an admitted New Ager and lesbian? Paglia stands with one foot in her world and still clearly sees over the fence, commanding s unique view of both sides of the field. She has the humility to confess the black holes in her chosen philosophy and political choices, that they’re anemic and meaningless without religious belief – specifically that secular humanism “denigrates religion” and is “reactionary and corrupt,” causing the best, most talented people in the arts to be sidelined and hurtling us all into a soulless future.

Paglia admits that her New Age religion has “failed to produce important work in the visual arts,” giving an example of “Star Wars” as the best they could come up with.

Let’s see now, “Star Wars” or the Sistine chapel … it’s a close call.

This type of transparency is remarkable in a profession that generally breeds hubris as fast as Obama changes his biography.

Paglia makes a compelling case for teaching and exploring Western tradition, history and religion without added political commentary, thank you. She also has pretty much duked it out with almost every well-known feminist over one thing or another, often in scathing rebukes. Liberals, progressives and other anti-Christ types really don’t know what to do with her, since she’s in 95 percent in their camp and wearing their uniforms.

The big divide is that Paglia refuses to rewrite history or bow to conventional thinking whatever the source. Lefties in the arts won’t see or admit to their own conventions, social pressure, rhetoric and compulsions. In fact it’s very hard to be truly expressive outside the leftist didactic outlines, regardless of their liberation/revolution hype, and they really don’t like to hear this.

I don’t agree with Paglia on many points, but the woman takes on the job no one else wants; she challenges, questions and aggravates other academics to the point of making them gnash their teeth. She seems to be enjoying it in spite of the abuse shot at her. As you can imagine, criticizing her goes over well with the press, fellow academics and feminists, whose characterization of her often runs from “Nazi” to “anti-feminist” to “doesn’t play well with others.”

Amidst the choir of prophetic voices warning of the Apocalypse or imminent economic collapse, Paglia is anti-type, but she is has a valid message. Western civilization really is teetering, troubled and divided, and our art represents that. Who could deny it? Current art education and theory refuses to acknowledge its limitations and blind spots where transcendence is concerned, denying there’s any problem.

Conservatives don’t entirely escape unscathed, charged with having a parched and narrow view of culture, prissies about nudity and in opposition to teaching art as a serious subject in schools.

Most of her weaponry is pointed at liberals and fellow secular humanists who aren’t even able to adequately respond or comprehend Western art without understanding the religious background of the times and artists. This is because metaphysics are gutted from postmodernism, the “Material Girl” of philosophies, which sees humans as passive agents to political forces.

Paglia hates the “sneering attitude” in academics toward religion over the last 30 years and Europeans’ bemused condescension toward America’s “religious fanaticism.” She dismisses fierce attacks and profanity about religion as “boring and adolescent,”
faulting them for thinking “our only enemy is the Bible-based far right.” Paglia mocks this idea and is particularly hard on the anti-Bible preachers.

From an interview with Robert Birnbaum in the Morning News, Paglia sounds a lot like a good Christian apologist – which is very strange when you think about it: “And the Bible is a masterpiece. The Bible is one of the greatest works produced in the world. The people who only have the Bible actually are set up for life. Not only do they have a spiritual vision given to them, but artistic fulfillment. They [in the secular world] don’t even recognize the pleasure of dealing with this epic poetry and drama. Everything is in the Bible. What does the left have? The left has a lot of attitude.”

I certainly couldn’t have said it better.