As you know if you’ve been reading this blog over the weekend, I am reading at the moment (taking a break from Dostoevsky, before the last act of The Brothers Karamazov) a newly translated Russian novel called Laurus. It is set in medieval Russia, and the title character is, for a time, a religious type called a “holy fool,” particularly beloved in Russia. It refers to people who behave in extreme ways that seem foolish to the rest of us, but do so out of an unusual sense of holiness. St. Francis of Assisi was the most famous holy fool in the West.
The people I’m writing about in this post are not holy fools. They are just simple believers. Let me make that clear. Still, being enchanted by the holy fool of Laurus made reading this powerful post last night about the forms of Christianity embraced by many poor people strike with particular force. Owen White, an Orthodox Christian, writes, in part:
I know a lot of intellectual Christians, in conservative Catholic and Orthodox and Magisterial Protestant camps, who make fun of and/or disparage revivalist Christianity.
I’ve written about this before, but 20 some years ago I read Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a decent enough book, but in one section where he is dealing with the environment he goes into a rant regarding the manner in which Evangelical eschatology lends itself to a lack on concern for the welfare of the planet. In the course of this argument he particularly went after the hymn I’ll Fly Away. I took his point, but I was also angry, and when I first read it I was not quite sure why. Upon reflection I thought of my grandfather, who worked hard appalachian hills in his childhood, saw hell in WWII, and then spent an adult life in the steel shops. He wasn’t inclined to claim Christ until his elderly years, but who had every reason, at damn near every point in his life, to want to fly away. I thought of the poor folk I had known throughout my life, and, of course, I thought of the black church I had known since not much longer than I could remember, with its spirituality always sung in Jacob’s wrestling plaintiveness. Most of human experience has been such that any sane man, woman, or child would want to fly away. Mark Noll has lived a very comfortable life, and by all accounts I could find, he has always been quite comfortable.
Yes, white American revivalist Christianity would end up with Left Behind novels and WWJD bracelets bought at Christian stores in malls by white kids going home in SUVs that cost 30k. I can’t grasp that level of banality. I don’t know that from the revivals of my youth.
I do know that there remain a lot suffering folk in this land. White Christianity has become a largely middle class and up affair, but Christianity of color still brings in the working and poor classes. I remain uncertain as to how a Christian milieu that is intrinsically linked to a patrimony of comfort is even possible, outside of the work of demons.
I would ask this – if you are inclined to disparage revivalist Christianity on the whole, and you have never seen a group of elders in a Missionary Baptist church in north Mississippi sing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms in the above manner, well friend, I’m sorry, but consider that perhaps you don’t know what the hell you are talking about. The Spirit goes where He wills, and He wills the company of those who pray in desperate tones.
You’ve got to read the whole thing and see the video performance to which he refers (“in the above manner”). At this outpouring of the spirit, any pope, patriarch, theologian or Christian philosopher who didn’t bow in the presence of the holy has rocks in his head.
I’ve told the story here on several occasions, about the time on our honeymoon that my wife and I made a pilgrimage to Fatima, in Portugal, to thank Our Lady for her intercession on our behalf. We took a bus north from Lisbon to the hill town, and plodded into town from the station on the outskirts. It was a dreary January day. We had to walk down the main street in the drizzle to get to the basilica and the vast plaza in front of it. It was a miserable stroll through a town whose economy apparently depended in large part on tacky religious kitsch. It was everywhere. Glow in the dark Virgin Marys in shop windows, one after the other. There really seemed no limit to the junkiness. By the time we reached the end of the street and a row of trees shielding the plaza, we were feeling repulsed by the place.
And then, crossing into the plaza, we saw a huge throng of pilgrims making their way toward the basilica in the distance. Some of them were on their knees, walking that last quarter-mile or so on wet asphalt. In front of us we saw a young woman on her knees, her hands clasped in prayer, “walking” forward. Her husband stood next to her holding a baby, and with them was an older woman, either her mother or his. Plainly they were making a pilgrimage of thanksgiving for that baby. From the way they were dressed, they were poor people, or at least working class. The plaza was filled with people like that.
My wife and I felt convicted by that sight. We realized that these same people who humbled themselves in ways we would never do, out of devotion, are probably the people who would leave Fatima with glow-in-the-dark Virgins in their trunks. It was a moment of repentance for us.
This does not make religious kitsch beautiful any more than it puts a religious tract on the same level as the Summa. But it does reveal the beauty of holiness — and its lack — in the hearts of the faithful. Then again, any reader of Flannery O’Connor, the self-described “hillbilly Thomist,” ought to know this.
UPDATE: On the other hand, a reader writes:
I grew up in a revivalist culture, and mister Orthodox doesn’t get a single damn thing about it. He doesn’t get that because he isn’t there day after day, it’s just exotic spice for him.
He doesn’t get that yeah, the cadence and emotion is awesome the first time you hear it, but when you attend the church again and again, it isn’t. Because pur-raise Jesus, nothing ever changes. it’s all a performance to raise an emotional high, sunday after sunday. The black pastor raises his voice, the women tremble in their ostentatious hats, and NOTHING EVER CHANGES. Sistah Latifah still sleepin with her ex con baby daddy, and brother Tyrone on the down low. Pastor Mal still sleepin with his girl and skimmin money off the collection plate for his new SUV. It’s just theater.
Even with white revivalist culture, it’s the same. You see the same people come up in revivals, chasing the emotional experience in more dramatic forms each time. It’s always been this way, even from the outset. The revival culture in Pentecostalism led to the “laughing revival” or Toronto blessing, and even more, like people barking. The act of emotional catharsis it brings in crowds has its own addictive power, like a drug, and that drug can build a tolerance to dangerous levels.
I do disparage it, and I sat as a child in a tent under the hot summer air. I spend four hour nights watching revival services. God save us from religious tourists.
Well, that’s a serious point. I have wondered why the black church is so ineffective at changing behavior of many worshipers. Is it because it is more about relief than repentance? I honestly don’t know. Please, readers, enlighten me.