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Making Christianity Weird Again

Catechesis has failed. Time for something new. How about embracing the weird?

This Wichita conference I’ve been at over the weekend was on the theme of wonder in Christianity. I had several important conversations about Millennials and the Christian faith, and the strong consensus — I’m talking about among college professors who teach them — is that even in Christian colleges, undergraduates come almost entirely ignorant of the Christian faith.

In a panel discussion yesterday, the Reformed philosopher James K.A. Smith told the audience, “We need to remember that for every finger we point at Millennials, there are three pointing back at us. We have failed them. We have failed to catechize them. This is our fault.” He added that this is the fruit of a completely discredited approach to youth ministry.

Speaking with another academic there, I told him about a discussion I’d had with a group of Evangelical professors, who not only said that many of their undergraduates had not even a rudimentary understanding of Christianity, but that many of them came from such broken homes that they lacked a concept of what a stable marriage and family life looks like. These weren’t professors griping about their students; these were professors grieving over what these kids have been cheated of by the adults who ought to have formed them. When I related that story yesterday, the professor I told it to, who teaches in a Christian college in the South, said he sees the same thing every day of every year.

I have for years heard the same thing from Catholic professors, of their Catholic undergraduates. This is an ecumenical problem, and I think it’s much bigger than many of us realize. What it means is that we may be looking at a European-style collapse in Christian faith within a generation or two, in part because so many young Americans raised in Christian homes, in a Christian milieu, do not know what it means to think and to live as a Christian. They don’t even have the conceptual vocabulary to articulate their thoughts or to frame their understanding. Again, this is not the fault of Millennials; it’s the fault of we who ought to have been teaching them.

I remember back in the 1990s, some of my dear European friends were surprised by my conversion to Catholicism, and my newfound religiosity. What I found most interesting about it was that unlike secular Americans my age, they weren’t the least bit bothered by it. They simply couldn’t understand it. That is, the idea of choosing to be a practicing Christian was so alien to them that being bothered by it was not even in the cards. If I had told them I had converted to Zoroastrianism, I would have gotten the same reaction, most likely. I suspect on current trends, we’re going to see that in the US too, in a couple of generations. It’s not so much that Christianity will offend younger people, but that it will puzzle them.

I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong.

On the panel discussion, Catholic theologian Bo Bonner made an intriguing suggestion: that we need our Christianity to quit trying to conform to the world, and instead to “be a lot stranger.” His point is that if young people are given the choice between unbelief and a faith that puts a light God gloss on the same consumerism and materialism that everybody else lives with, then who can blame young people for rejecting it? Because that is not historic Christianity. The real thing is wild, and weird; it is not a set of ideas, but a way of life. There will always be some people — young, middle-aged, and old — haunted by the sense that there is something else there, a longing that cannot be anesthetized away. If the church stands true to itself, and doesn’t apologize for itself, then they will come.

I’m thinking out loud here, but this might be what Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is talking about in his column about signs of a Catholic revival in France. Excerpts:

It was only recently that I was struck by the fact that, imperceptibly, the majority of my college and grad school friends who were Christmas-and-Easter-Catholics when we met now report going to Church every Sunday and praying regularly. On social media, they used to post about parties; now they’re equally likely to post prayers for persecuted Middle East Christians or calls to help the homeless over the holidays.

My friends live all over town; some of them are young singles who move around a lot; all of them report looking for those mythical “empty churches” we hear so much about — and failing to find them. In fact, it’s closer to the other way around: If you don’t show up early, you might have to sit on the floor — and people are happy to do it.

Of course, the key benchmark for a real religious revival is priestly vocations. The test of a people’s fervor is how many of them are willing to pursue a life of celibacy and thankless service for the sake of the Kingdom. But it’s a lagging indicator: the move from finding a robust faith to joining the priesthood takes time. But even there, things are looking up.

Vocations have stabilized for some time now and have been showing slow but steady growth for years. The Community of Saint Martin, a congregation started in the 70s by just one priest, whose members pray in Latin using the new, post-Vatican II Missal — making them suspect to both the traditionalist wing of the Church, who distrust the New Missal, and the progressive wing, who dislike the use of Latin — now has one of the biggest seminaries in the country. And, so to speak, quality has a quantity all of its own: One talented priest will turn around a parish when 10 mediocre ones just occupy space. The people of the so-called “John Paul II Generation,” who have been through the crucible of all those anti-religious trends we’ve read so much about, who choose the priesthood nonetheless, have a fervor that was too often lacking in previous generations.

I don’t deny that much of my evidence for a revival is anecdotal; but, well, first, I’m a pundit, so you’re dreaming if you think I’m going to let that stop me; and second, if there was a revival starting, wouldn’t that be how you would notice it before it showed up in the numbers?

That’s really encouraging, but I appreciate how tentative it is. Thinking about the difference that “one talented priest” (or pastor) can make in turning a place around, I was reminded of something a conference attendee from Wichita told me about Warren and Chris Farha and their Eighth Day Books, which has been there for almost three decades, I believe. “If you go to the Orthodox cathedral here, just about any non-Lebanese person who is Orthodox is a convert who came into the church because of the work those two have done with the bookstore,” the conferee said. You can find lots of Orthodox books and icons at Eighth Day, but it’s not really an Orthodox bookstore. There are lots of Christian books there, but it’s not really a Christian bookstore. What it is is a place where people who love books can come and browse, and sit and talk, in a space that (as one aficionado puts it) “smells like a book store should smell.” Nobody’s trying to evangelize you there. If I were to wander into a place like that as an unbelieving twentysomething (as I once more or less was), I would be so drawn in by the eclecticism of the place. It is a place of wonder, by which I mean you go there, and start browsing the shelves, and getting the vibe, and you may find yourself wanting to know what kind of religious and cultural vision creates a place like this. If Tolkien or Lewis were to come back to life and live in Wichita, they would be found there. In fact, they are found there, in spirit.

As a matter of fact, that kind of thing — being struck by wonder, and wanting to know more about the religious and cultural vision that created something wondrous — was the beginning of my own Christian conversion, at Chartres. An overstuffed bookstore in an old house in Wichita is not the Chartres cathedral, heaven knows, but here’s the connection: both places are so unusual, and so attractive, at least to a certain kind of person, that you want to know more.

I spoke at the bookstore reception last night to a young man who had converted to Orthodoxy after graduating from a prominent Mainline Protestant seminary. He said the seminary experience “crushed my soul.” It was all militant progressivism, all the time. He said that the politicization of Christianity there was total, and that they flattened all the wonder out of it by presenting a Christianity that was obsessed by seeing religion as nothing more than a tool for political change (= overturning heteronormative patriarchy, etc.). He graduated with an advanced degree, but eventually found his way to Orthodoxy. It sounded to me that the sheer wonder embedded within this form of Christianity — its beauty, its deep rootedness in Church history, and its dimensionality (vs. the flattened version of Christianity he’d had at the Mainline seminary) all won him over.

I don’t mean this post as an advertisement for Orthodoxy. I mean it to stimulate conversation about the role of small-o orthodoxy and wonder in attracting younger people to the faith. Young people don’t want the Republican Party at prayer, but whatever their own political views, the decline of liberal denominations indicates that they don’t want the Democratic Party at prayer either (or the Mount Holyoke humanities faculty at prayer).

Maybe the thing to do is to own our strangeness, in all its mystery and glory. What do you think? Bo Bonner says one way to start is by talking about death — this, in a culture that is terrified of death, and goes out of its way to deny it. “We pray in cemeteries,” he said, “and that is weird.” This is not a bug, but a feature. Re-enchant the faith, re-enchant the world! A disbelief in the reality or the possibility of enchantment is a means of social control. Fight that power, and you might save a soul.

UPDATE: I knew this reminded me of something: Arturo Vasquez’s old blog. Eight years ago, I wrote a post about Vasquez:

… a Catholic who makes pithy, wise, pessmistic observations. Such as this one, which I offer for discussion:

Any tradition that you read in a book is not a tradition. Tradition is passed down through life, not learning. The entire Bugninian project of the liturgy was an attempt to create a tradition by the book. Even if it sought to reintroduce certain ceremonies or accoutrements into the liturgy that had died out several centuries earlier, all it did was create novelty with the thin veneer of antiquity. All of this has nothing to do with tradition. Once a tradition is dead, it’s dead. Otherwise, you are just playacting.

Just because something is broken doesn’t necessarily mean that there is someone around smart enough to fix it. This is basically the dilemma of Catholicism of the 21st century, if not the perennial dilemma of humanity.
Roman Catholicism at this point has painted itself into a corner from which, in my eyes, it can only escape by jettisoning much of the metaphysical apparatus upholding the modern concept of “Christianity”. In other words, it has to become “pagan”, full stop. On the one hand, textual scholarship, modern science, and a general lack of coercive power have made any historical arguments for Catholic faith and practice insufficient. On the other hand, the only attempts to justify Christianity from the Catholic perspective have either centered on “personalist” dialogue with these sources (under which man’s aspirations are fulfilled by a personal “Other), or through reactionary fundamentalism against anything deemed “threatening to the Faith” (which is why Pio Nono never got invited to any parties).
The way out has often been proposed as keeping the spirit but discarding the letter; neglecting the sign but holding fast to the meaning. I say we stand this on its head: keep the sign, but reinterpret the meaning. Or rather, try to find the transcendental in the immediate, imperfect tradition, rather than try to construct the true liturgy/church/philosophy whole cloth. In other words, let us have a rebellion against ecclesiastical Cartesianism.
Because if we are blind to the truths in the symbols immediately before us, chances are that there is nothing wrong with them, but rather something wrong with us.

I wondered what he means by Catholic Christianity needing to become “pagan, full stop” — and then I found this passage from a Vasquez post about Church governance:

The driving idea behind my intellectual projects, however, is a postmodern agnosticism towards attempts by any institution (divinely instituted or not) to hem in the limits of the enchanted world. Intellectually, I suppose, these reservations are due in large part to my studies of Neoplatonism, particularly of Marsilio Ficino. This is where a lot of my perennialism and admiration for folk religion comes in, as well as my profound distrust of theological abstraction. Since the human intellect is the lowest form of immaterial existence, and since our knowledge of the material world is constantly evolving, I am beginning to think that entering into the realm of religiosity is not an invitation to blissful certainty, but is rather more like being tossed into a lion’s den with forces that we barely understand. One can of course try to keep on the “straight and narrow” of “official” sacramental Christianity, but I have never found that road to be as clear cut as most would like to think. In the end, we may be living in a world haunted by gobblins and witches, where the evil eye is very much a problem that we are sedating with modern drugs, and where Santa Muerte is coming to get you (though she is really your friend). Though we would still need to walk by faith and not by sight, what we can see is much more than we think is out there.
The good news is that there are helpers, but those helpers are often not found in high offices or fancy robes. They are the Virgin Mary, the saints, las ánimas del Purgatorio who sometimes are let out to wander the earth, the angels, and heck, Santa Muerte herself if you believe in that sort of thing. They may not work with the bureaucratic efficiency that we often desire, but they do work. And there is of course wonder. But that wonder is the result of this existential gamble we call our lives, and here certainty is often not in the cards. But it does, at the same time, make life worth living, and living well.

I think I know what he means. I must confess that the older I get, the more I believe that the kind of lurid Christianity — weeping icons, gaudy statues, bloody plaster Christs drooping from crucifixes, candles inside cheap, colored glass sheaths bought at the supermercado — is closer to the Real Thing than the abstractions of the theologians. I once stood in front of a large fire in the plaza outside the basilica at Fatima, Portugal, and watched as throngs of worshipers burned wax shaped like body limbs in the flames, as prayers for healing. It was the most pagan religious ceremony I’d ever seen, and you would sooner see goats sacrificed on the lawn of Our Lady of Nordstrom’s than such a thing in these United States. But it was scary and gorgeous and raw. I loved it, and I hated it. But I wasn’t indifferent to it. Mostly, I found it mesmerizing.

Arturo Vasquez used to write for Crisis. Here he is saying that there is a deep and ineradicable hunger within the human person for the miraculous, for mystery. Excerpt:

Are the events at the cemetery of St. Médard in the 18th century an isolated incident, the last gasp of medieval religious atavism on the eve of the Age of Enlightenment? Or are they a sign of things to come? As stated above, controversies over apparitions at Medjugorje, the charismatic movement, statues crying blood, and a steady line of newly minted seers seem to betray a seedy preternatural underbelly of modern Catholicism. Not only that, but outside the developed world, Christianity in all forms seems to have an insatiable thirst for the miraculous in the form of unexplained healings, exorcisms, and religious attitudes that magnify local superstitions rather than refute them. (On this subject, I recommend Darren Wilson’s recent documentary The Finger of God.)

As with the St. Médard events, prodigious phenomena may still present a threat to ecclesial and doctrinal order. Signs and wonders must still in this day be weighed against the tenets of faith, reason, tradition, and authority. The fate of Christianity in the 21st century may not depend upon how we refute skepticism, but rather on how we assimilate and interpret the inevitable emergence of the miraculous.

Here is Vasquez writing against botanicas, those occult shops you often see in Latin American immigrant neighborhoods. This is great:

This can all seem like airing out our Latino dirty laundry in public, but the Catholic Church in this country should be more aware of the existence and growth of these occult establishments. On the one hand, they represent the darkest manifestation of ancient superstition: veritable dens of iniquity for sins against the First Commandment. On the other hand, we must come to terms with the very un-enchanted nature of much of American Catholicism: a reductionist view of religion that often results in a politicized deism with props. No doubt one should be rightly shocked by the existence ofbotanicas, but neither should we overlook the rather jaded attitude toward the supernatural found in even the best of Catholics.

The solution to the problem of botanicas is not to be found in the secularization of the minds and desires of these immigrants. Rather, it lies in a stronger dose of good old-fashioned Catholicism — a remedy that would benefit the entire Church.

A politicized deism with props. What a terrific phrase, one that describes much of American Christianity.



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