David Gibson notes the former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy is now out with a book discussing how she was raised in the Catholic Church, but is now a “recovering Catholic.” Gibson writes:
I just wonder how much longer celebs and authors are going to be able to mine the Catholic culture of their childhood when that culture is disappearing so rapidly.
I have faith that they’ll find something to bitch about. It’s the Celebrity-American way. It will be like the “phantom limb” syndrome in which amputees’ brains record the presence of a limb that is actually not there.
UPDATE: The comments so far are focusing on Jenny McCarthy as a dingbat. That’s fine, but the more interesting question to me is what happens to this genre of memoir (non-fiction and fiction) — and the artists who create it by having built their personality around rejecting a Catholic culture they remember as oppressive — when that Catholic culture has ceased to exist? What do the rebels rebel against? What do those looking for deeper roots and wellsprings of creativity draw on if the source has been dammed up by the previous generation?
UPDATE.2: This is a little off-topic, but not really. I was thinking last night after I posted this about how my kids don’t really have a religious culture to rebel against. Partly this is because we left the Catholic Church five years ago, when they were younger, but I can’t say that there was a “thick” culture in the Catholicism we left behind. What I mean is that the world older Catholics described no longer existed, and what had replaced it inside the Church was not nearly as distinct, culturally speaking. Note well, I’m not saying this was a good or a bad thing, only that it was a much different thing.
We’ve gone into the Orthodox Church, as you know, but unless you attend a heavily ethnic parish, the experience is a lot like cultural Protestantism within an Orthodox liturgical environment. Again, I’m not complaining about this. People can’t be other than they are, and most of us were not raised within Orthodoxy, so we relate to it primarily as a set of ideas and liturgical practices. I was thinking last night about what “Orthodox culture” means to me, and was surprised by how “thin” it was. The cultural part — as distinct from the theological and liturgical part — is confined mostly do a distinctive vocabulary (in the same way Catholics say “apostolate” while Protestants say “ministry”), and to practices like fasting. It can be lots of fun to be present in an Orthodox parish around folks who come from a particular ethnic Orthodox background, to share in their food and cultural traditions related to the faith. But they come by it naturally; for converts, it would be fake to suddenly adopt these cultures as our own. It is one thing to start to believe in theosis. It is another to have been raised as, let’s say, a Lutheran in small-town Wisconsin, and to adopt the pose of having been brought up a village Orthodox in Mother Russia. You convert to the religion, not the culture.
But religion is typically carried by culture. As sociologist Robert Bellah has recently written, religion is more of a way of life than a set of ideas. I think this explains why older Catholics who grew up in that thick American Catholic culture remain rooted to it, sometimes in ways that trouble them, even though they have rejected the religion. It’s not hard to see how a thick church culture can go wrong. I have a couple of Greek-American friends who left Orthodoxy for Evangelicalism because they got sick and tired of what they describe as a church culture of worshipping Greekness. I can understand their frustration. Culture won’t save anybody. Still, those ethnic parishes have a thick culture, and I envy them for it because of its particularity — a particularity that is unavailable to the rest of us, because we weren’t raised in it. Whatever our kids will have as their cultural inheritance from the Church, it won’t be that, because their parents will not have been formed by that.
As for the culture of Evangelicalism, I don’t know. I wasn’t raised in it. To hear my wife talk about it, it seems to me that there was some fairly thick culture there, but I’m wondering if it was just a Southern Baptist thing. Growing up mainline Protestant, it didn’t seem to me that we had anything culturally distinctive about us re: the church. As a young teenager, I spent some time doing things at the Southern Baptist church in our town, and they seemed to have a more definite cultural sensibility. But that was so long ago that I can’t say for sure.
Please observe that I’m not saying that churches with thick cultures are better or worse, theologically speaking. What I’m curious to know is what difference you readers think it makes in your experience of the faith, and whether you think it’s a good or a bad thing that cultural distinctiveness in American religious life is fading. As a Catholic, I tried not to be nostalgic for a past that I never experienced, but it seemed to me that doing away with the Latin Mass, Friday fasts, and other things that made American Catholicism so distinctive was a bad thing, aside from whatever theological issues were at stake. Those things kept Catholicism from being assimilated into mass Protestant culture. When they went, the assimilation proceeded apace. However, if they had stayed, I wonder if Catholics today would relate to their church much as Greek Orthodox criticized by my Greek Evangelical convert friends do: as a series of lightly theologized cultural practices and markers, but little more than that. It’s hard to say.
What do you say about all of this?