I have been noticing lots of cultural phenomena lately that I often ignore for the rest of the year. The busyness of the holidays often makes one aware of things that you might otherwise simply not be aware of. You go into a bookstore looking for a gift and you suddenly realize the dominance of e-books in their physical space must say something. You are waiting in line and hear pundits on the television or radio decrying this, that, or the next. You have chats with folks, whether distant relatives or casual acquaintances, that you don’t see often and they mention issues and concerns that normally don’t hit your radar.
One of the cultural phenomena is Black Friday. There has been lots of critical coverage in Christian publications and on Facebook – and it is a deplorable thing. The fact that we are now losing Thanksgiving as a national day of rest is extraordinarily depressing and represents another step in national hyper-activity and sensationalism. Yet it is a symptom of a deeper and far sadder condition as the drive to consume is consuming us relentlessly.
It is in the interest of purveyors and peddlers to keep people amped up. Most people, when given space to reflect, will realize that they do not need some new thing. Look at how casinos are organized – no pause in the constant action so that patrons will spend, spend, spend. If someone glances at a clock or sees the light of day go up or down, they might just stop pounding quarters into the machine for a minute. So we stay hyped up, frustrated, and annoyed.
24 hour news, social media, email, smart phones, online shopping, texts, radio, junk mail, spam, and so much more crank up the noise to a level that is nearly unbearable – in fact it is unbearable. Look at the rates of depression, ADHD, and the like. This is not a culture that just sells caffeine or anti-depressants – it needs them to survive.
One of our dogs, Penelope, has a little red light that she plays with – chases around. If I let her play with the red light, she will chase it until she literally cannot walk. She will lay on her belly and crawl toward the light when she is too worn out to chase it anymore. Even when she is exhausted, if I put away the red light, she will whine, beg, and plead for it to come back out so that she can chase it until exhausted again. She will ignore other toys and even treats if the red light has been played with recently because she can only think of that light. Penelope is addicted to the laser light.
Our whole culture is addicted. If something is not entertaining, fast, or distracting enough we start to whine and beg for something else – something new.
Yet the burnout is happening – even faster than we realize. There was an article on millenials and the search for meaning in the New York Times last week. The thrust of the article was this, “Millennials have been forced to reconsider what a successful life constitutes. By focusing on making a positive difference in the lives of others, rather than on more materialistic markers of success, they are setting themselves up for the meaningful life they yearn to have…” The rise of intentional communities, slow food movements, and the like are rational responses to an irrational system of hyper-stimulation and marketing.
The deeper need is for something real – something that is beautiful and not just pretty. Something that brings true joy and not just momentary happiness. Something that forms who we are and doesn’t just let us escape for a while.
This is where the Church has much to offer. Death, scarcity, competition, and avarice are the signs of a profoundly disordered society rooted in the notion that suffering and conflictive daily existence are somehow parts of God’s plan. Yet, the Trinity is the embodiment of difference as cooperative movement rather than something to be overcome. It is at once a response to unity and a call to it. The Trinity is not the completion, but the infinite act of ongoing completion in harmony and beauty.
That is a bit of theological denseness that simply means that the Church can offer a vision of wholeness and completion that does not rest on individual struggle over and against but on the deepest longing of God for each of us to know wholeness and meaning poured out in God’s own act of constant creative generosity and love. The key to knowing this ongoing act of beauty is found in the definitive act of love offered in Christ.
There cannot be a Christian conception of beauty without understanding the compelling a transcendent beauty of lives lived fully in the service of Christ and the whole of humanity. For beauty is necessarily transcendent, and fundamentally calls us out of ourselves into the world and to greater service and purpose. The Christian life is an act of beauty for it reflects the ongoing transcendent love of Christ in the world and through his people.
Beauty is not about prettiness. It is really about survival. That which is beautiful gives life and offers a picture of that which is in balance and harmony. It is an essential quality of the Church’s offering to the world. We offer the beautiful revealed in the most common of things – a vision of the Divine made known in human form.
There is a fundamental difference between a work of art and a reproduction. The Church cannot offer only reproduction whether it is of the past, of the culture around us, or of some anticipated future. The Church offers a vision of the here and now that is full of delight and decay, joy and regret, inspiration and despair. We worship a God who is the fullness of Presence and the source of beauty in its many forms.
Yet all of this beauty is ultimately not about our worship, architecture, or artwork – it is about the rapt awe we feel when we see someone living an essentially Christian life. It is why so many are fascinated by the new pope – we are given a vision of authenticity and therein lies beauty. We are dying for examples of coherence in which the inner life and the outer are in alignment – examples that give people a meaning and hope that lift them out of the conflictual busyness in which we are all too often mired into something holy and sustainable.
It is shocking when we see such examples and breaks, just for a second, the hold of addictive freneticism such that new possibilities are revealed.
We cannot offer just an alternative to cultural expectations and demands but a wholly other way of being that forms how we engage that culture. Christ, our model, came challenging the culture of his day but loving with fierce compassion those all around him. The Church has the power to be an agent of such compassion, such beauty, and such joy that we can help others find a new way of being that is utterly present and authentic because it finds its heart in the way of Christ.
Those who criticize the Church are doing us a profound favor because they are holding up for us a mirror so that we can see exactly where and how we are failing. Until we offer with clarity and conviction an authentic, present, vibrant, real faith we will continue to wonder at the busyness of the world around us and marvel that people don’t come and see. The challenge for us is not to figure out how to get others to come and see but to figure out how to go and show.