Saturday, March 31, 2007

Same Song, Second Verse

The garden is coming along and things have settled down a bit, but as Holy Week is beginning I'm going to be extending my blog holiday for a while longer. I thought I ought to get in an addendum to D's comments below, however, before shutting down operations. I've been reading the continuing adventures of Sister and her motley crew of nuns for several months now, whereas he looks in only on occasion; lately I've been studying it and its companion site in depth, so I have a bit wider experience from which to opine.

I think D's assessment of the blog is basically sound. Sister, whoever she may be, is above all else a good storyteller.(I'm using the feminine article for convenience's sake here; she could be a middle-aged man in a wifebeater t-shirt for all I know. Her flair for detail makes me lean slightly in the direction of the author's being female, but that's a hypothesis I could easily revise. And while I acknowledge the possibility that she could be a nun, little would surprise me more than to be shown authoritatively that this is the case.) Her characters are not mere stereotypes; they are sympathetically portrayed and come alive in the stories. They could easily be real people, and may be based on real people.

The posts as a rule are not excessively long (the picture volume, however, can make for slow loading for those of us with slightly obsolete software; a skilled proofreader would moreover be to her benefit.) They generally blend some entertaining personal story or news item with a fairly basic catechism lesson or saint story; occasionally some contemporary church issue like the Medjugorje revelations is discussed. Sister seems to do do a respectable job of researching her material, as far as this spottily-schooled lay Catholic can see; on occasion a better-informed reader corrects a point. At worst, I haven't noticed anything that strikes me as disrespectful of the Church or outright heresy. The blog is funny and interesting and seems, understandably, popular. It is far from "deep" theology, mind you--it would never occur to me to ask Sister a Jimmy Akin-level question or to assume she was correct on a point that I couldn't independently verify. Most of Sister's lessons are the sort of thing that can be picked up at Catholic Online or similar sites, put into an entertaining story. When I taught middle-school religious ed, I'd have loved to have had a textbook formatted in this style. The comboxes are generally pretty friendly as well, and Catholics of various stripes often discuss belief and tradition or share advice with each other.

Sister is affiliated with an online purveyor of religious medals which sell for about $12 apiece and are attractively strung with colorful beads or macrame. They're pretty, but assuming they're garden-variety tin medals and craft store findings the price strikes me a bit stiff. Display pages include blurbs in the same slightly snarky but basically respectful tone of the blog posts. (I thought one play on the term "ball chain" pushed the envelope, but nothing else raised hackles.) It's a pretty good advertising scheme, especially if you're aiming at young Catholics of the 'Net generation. I could find no information on the sales site that would clue me in to who runs the shop or what affiliations they may have; paraphernalia typical of many Catholic sites and blogs--a dedication to a patron saint for example--seem to be absent as well. I'm not saying the proprietors are not Catholic; it's not as if anybody gets rich in the sacramentals business and there's little nonreligious motivation for going into it. But assuming they are, they're certainly not overt about it.

The blog is of a type I would call a "character blog" or "persona blog" and in that regard is one of quite a few I've encountered on the 'Net. Usually it is apparent that such blogs portray a character, although the bloggers, dramatic types that they are, often go to great lengths to stay in character. The author of another character blog I read, (unfortunately less frequently due to the enforced slower pace of reading Middle English) Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog encountered a problem because of this. It seems a magazine contacted him about using a quote for an article but needed to publish his real name. He insisted that his "real name" was Geoffrey Chaucer and refused to give any other; thus he was not published.

Sister, likewise, seems determined to be Sister and only Sister to the readership. This really wouldn't seem to be a problem; one wouldn't expect that any reader could pass the blog's masthead, with its snarky "Life is tough. But nuns are tougher..." motto and black-and-white photo of a traditionally-habited elderly nun that pretty obviously came from a pre-Vatican II-era Catholic school yearbook, and remain under the delusion that what follows represents reality. Unfortunately, in the world of the 'Net, all kinds of things one wouldn't expect seem to happen.

While I doubt that the most naive reader would presume that the 500-plus-years-deceased Chaucer has lately resurrected and taken up blogging, elderly nuns--even the traditional variety--are fairly common. Moreover, women religious and postulants are well represented in the blogosphere, as are monks. Thus a blogging traditional nun isn't a huge imaginative leap for a moderately 'Net-savvy Catholic. Add to the mix the fact that the 'Net is society condensed: skim Sister's combox for a few weeks and you'll find all kinds. [Full disclosure: Skim Sister's next-to-last post and you'll encounter Yours Truly at loggerheads with a particularly vicious species of troll. I must be a lightning rod.] There are seekers, trads who love Sister's pre-Vat. II mindset, and occasional anticatholics. Some of the lattermost clearly come in with an eye to thrashing some Catholics; a few are under the impression that it's the blog version of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. (I haven't seen the play, but reviews I've read indicate its contempt for Catholicism is pretty overt. If the Sister of the blog is trying to mock the Church in any way, she's being phenomenally subtle about it.) Among the Catholics, most readers seem to understand that they are dealing with a persona, (a few have thought it a con job, and indicated as much) and don't have any problem with that. Trying to sleuth out Sister's real identity with probing questions is an ongoing game, but as she has thus far been closemouthed on that matter little progress has been made that I can see.

A few readers--most Catholics, some probably seekers, do seem to be under the impression that Sister is a 100% Real Nun. This is where the potential for harm is. The odds of encountering people with "issues" in a few months of blogging are high. One recently scolded Sister at length for her crusty answers to questioners, which he considered unsuitable to a religious. (He obviously never met Sr. Andrew, who taught at my school until it closed down in the early '70's.) I suggested he was taking the blog too seriously; I wish he had replied to me because my next comment to him would have been to direct him to the dictionary to look up "persona." I've had enough contact with amateur theater folks to respect their commitment to their characters, but there are limits.

Others ask advice on matters that are very probably beyond Sister's scope, and a few seem to hang on her words with just a little too much vehemence to be really healthy. I don't have a problem at all with someone, Catholic or otherwise, portraying a nun as long as it's in good fun and done respectfully. I don't care for Whoopi Goldberg's politics, but I thought Sister Act was kinda cute. I do, however, have a problem with anyone portraying a nun allowing that portrayal to go to a point at which it becomes messing with someone's mind. If Sister's creator is a Catholic, I can't imagine how she can post three times a week with that responsibility hanging over her head. I couldn't do it. I couldn't have somebody take my crusty act the wrong way (even if they hadn't been very nice to begin with) and not try to smooth things over. I couldn't keep up the act in the presence of someone who--as far as I could see--genuinely needed help. The Catholic training runs too deep.

Sister may be a good Catholic, or a good person who is not a Catholic, with good intentions. If I had ever gotten the impression that her intent was nefarious, I would currently have more time to read Chaucer. But what seems to have started out as a clever but harmless product-moving scheme is getting out of control, and needs to be brought back into line. Comment moderation is easily enough done, and can go far toward keeping troublemakers out and discussion civil. And if Sister is not doing so, she needs to consider seriously the need to occasionally drop character long enough to make sure her "act" will not lead to harm.

For the rest of us, what to do? It costs nothing to read, and as long as the stories continue to be good I intend to do so. For readers who get the joke, I think the blog is benign. I don't know that I'll be hanging around the comboxes much; the atmosphere in there has gotten too tense. As for the sales side of the operation: I don't wear much jewelry, have access to sacramentals shops locally if I need them, and am troubled by the lack of information available about the business. So I believe for now I'll just keep my credit card tucked away.


UPDATE 5/15/07: Just happened across Sister's Best Stuff in the World Page--One of her commenters addresses her thus: Jane, You’re still funny after all these years! Barbara Daly Fincher The Plot Thickens...

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Blogger Amanda said...

I agree with your suggestion. In her July 7th post of last year, Sister claimed she was of the Sorrowful Sisters of the Weeping Nuns. Thanks to Google, I found out that the Sorrowful Sisters is an order made up for the Late Nite Catechism play in the 1990's.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous cminor said...

Huh. I missed that one. On other occasions that I've noticed she's been evasive on the point.

I did look at a couple of her earliest posts and was surprised at the difference in style and tone between those and the later ones. Possibly the author tried out a few and decided to go in a radically different direction. It almost seems like two different writers.

8:21 PM  
Blogger The unconventional mother said... never know who is behind an internet persona. There is always some sort of truth in them, but it always keeps you guessing as to what is true and what is "artistic".

7:04 AM  

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