Monday, September 30, 2013

Profoundly Countercultural

I sing in the choir at church now.  It's a joy and a labor and every time I open my mouth to sing, my thoughts turn to St. Augustine of Hippo's famous dictum, “He who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully… also loves Him whom he is singing about… in the song of the lover, there is love.” Popularly, this saying is often rendered "He who sings well prays twice."

This morning, I was reminded again of how profoundly counter-cultural I am and how radical Christianity truly is.  Our opening hymn was "Lord, We Have Deserved the Pain."  The tune is Aberystwyth, so listen here as you read these words:

Lord, we have deserved the pain 
That afflicted us again
Justly you have dealt with those
Who have disobeyed your laws.
But give glory to your name
That we may be whole again
And, O Lord, show us your way
And your mercy every day.

Happy those with blameless heart
Following the way of God
Happy those who do his will 
And with whole hearts seek him still
Blest are also those whose ways
Are God-fearing nights and days
God established his commands 
To be kept with diligence.

Help me, Lord, that I may keep, 
Your commands, make my ways straight.
I shall not be shamed at all,
With my eyes fixed on your law.  
With glad hear I give you thanks
That you teach your ordinance.
I shall follow in your way, 
Worship you, profess, and pray.

To the Triune One we raise
Glorious hymns of endless praise
Praise the Father, praise the Son,
Praise the Spirit, with them One.
As it was before all days,
It is now, will be always.
Grateful anthems we present, 
Giving Glory without end.

When do we hear sentiments such as these in popular culture or in our daily lives?   I can't think of one contemporary instance where the moral of the story is that we deserve chastisement (other people, maybe, but not us).  I can't think of one contemporary instance where we are encouraged to follow.

Instead, our culture promotes independence, self-sufficiency, edginess, charting our own course, breaking rules.  It tells us that faithfully following is suspect, for the weak-minded or the impressionable.  Even I do it -- at this week's School of Community, we discussed following, and my first reaction to the reading we were using was to think of the Manson Family!

I was reminded of all this again when I read Calah Alexander's (another UD alum!) blog post about Pope Francis and all the brouhaha about his recent interview published in America magazine.  In it, she says:

I suspect our culture has grown weary of its own sin. I think there is a general undercurrent of exhaustion with all this decadence, and despondency over the emptiness it breeds. I think our culture is absolutely desperate for mercy, but unable to understand why. And I think that’s why they are latching onto Pope Francis so voraciously. When an entire culture has lost a common vocabulary with which to discuss things like sin, forgiveness, and morality, they’ve lost the ability to see the truth, even if the successor of Peter is vanishing into it, the better to hold it up before their eyes. But if the successor of Peter steps out of the truth and looks straight at them, holds out his hand, and says, “let me heal your wounds”…well, that’s a different story. I don’t think the secular culture will be able to see Christ until they have been seen by Him. A patient who is dying of dehydration is usually so confused and disoriented that he or she doesn’t even understand what’s wrong with them. Why would it be any different with desperate afflictions of the soul?

I thought her piece was marvelous.  You should read it all.

The other night, my husband and I had a long discussion about Pope Francis's interview, as reported in the media.  T. was disturbed and thought that Pope Francis was setting himself up to be used by forces that hate the Church, hate Christ, hate Christianity.  He also thought that his remarks were potentially discouraging to people who had spent their lives fighting against the rot that we call our culture.

I contended that, first of all, NEVER NEVER NEVER accept the media or popular culture understanding of anything having to do with Christ, Christianity, or the Church.  These are the people who titilate us year after year with idiotic "proofs" that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that Jesus had brothers and sisters, and the like.  They don't understand anything about Christianity and don't particularly want to.  Headlines like the those in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and CBS News* are revealing.  They distilled a twenty-page article to a couple of sound bites.  How can this be thought to be accurate analysis?  This piece in the American Thinker expounds upon this idea.

Secondly, and this is the most important thing, the Church can never be understood by the world.  As human beings, we are all subject to our own perspectives and prejudices.  We are great at categorizing things -- this is how we have survived and thrived on the planet.  THESE kinds of berries are good to eat, THOSE kinds will kill you.  People who have THOSE kinds of tribal markings are friends; people with THOSE kinds will kill you.  We analyze and categorize in every way.  And we think that we can categorize the Church.  It's liberal or conservative, it's old or it's new, it's good or it's bad, etc.

The crazy thing is, the Church is not liberal or conservative in a political sense or even a cultural sense.  Any educated Catholic can tell you that the Church's positions on abortion and birth control are completely of a piece with its positions on capital punishment (the Church is against all three because all three violate human dignity). In the political realm, conservatives are generally against abortion and for capital punishment.  Liberals are generally for abortion and birth control and against capital punishment.

No, the Church is not liberal or conservative -- it is radical.  It's about radical love, the love of a God who becomes a human being, who shares our skin, who shares our suffering.  It's about helping people understand that a real, lived relationship with God, with Christ, in my life RIGHT NOW is possible.  Christ, not as a guru, a historical figure, an idea, or an intellectual concept, but A PERSON.  The Catholic Church is the only game in town when it comes to the fullness of this Incarnational notion of God.  St. Teresa of Avila has the most beautiful prayer that talks about this idea of Christ being with us, in the flesh, living, breathing, moving, working, loving.  I think it really encapsulates the beauty of Catholicism.

So, Catholicism is not just about rules and regulations, although those are extremely important, since they ground us in the real and provide structure, which we crave.  The Church and all its rules and doctrines DO act as a bulwark against the technologically-enabled neopaganism that is our culture.  But, being this bulwark is not the telos (the end, the reason) for the Church, but a side effect.  The telos is to enable a relationship between each person and God.  Inasmuch as it does that, it will thrive.  Where it does not, it is lacking.  I think that Pope Francis is reminding us of that, as Pope Benedict XVI did in his way, and my beloved Blessed Pope John Paul II did in his.  We are blessed to have them all.  They help us to be truly and profoundly countercultural.

*Google it if you want, folks -- I'm not going to link to such tripe here, but my search was for "headlines about Pope Francis America article"


  1. Nice post Col, I really enjoyed reading it. I liked your take on the media and the church, which I think is pretty accurate. I balked a bit at the beginning when reading the hymn by Aberystwyth. It is very man written old church. The whole hymn fills one with fear. God and love is anything but fear, and to me, that hymn is the opposite of love. I wish people knew and really believed that our Creator wants us to be happy and doesn't want us to suffer. We are here because we choose to be here to learn, it isn't just because 2 people had intercourse and created a flesh and bones being. There is our eternal soul or our consciousness, which is directly connected to God's. Jesus did come to show us how to be happy and to love one another. I love Christ, but I try to be very careful in discerning Christ's words from religions words as a means of power and control. Furthermore, because we are really connected to God consciousness or Christ consciousness, we know what is right. However, it isn't as easy as all that...In order to know what is right, we must first love ourselves, live healthily in every way, pray or meditate to connect with God and then we can know as my dear Christopher Reeve put it : “I think we all have a little voice inside us that will guide us…if we shut out all the noise and clutter from our lives and listen to that voice, it will tell us the right thing to do.” I do believe that there are many good teachings in many different religions, but what Christ really came to teach us is that his Church is in each and every one of us. Love

  2. I love this quote by Carl Jung too - "Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, 'Something is out of tune." -Carl Jung