Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In Defense of Not Being Christian

Attention all Christian writers, bloggers, apologists, personalities, painters, sculptors, singers, musicians, composers, clock-makers, dress-designers, cobblers, DJs, plumbers, cooks, and chimney sweeps.
Just don't. You are so embarrassing me.
You think I'm kidding? Think again. Think about this.

Or this.
"My Catholic Boy"
Or this.

Still in doubt? OK, what about this:

And this.

And this.

Are we all embarrassed yet? OK; which would you rather been seen carrying out of the library, The Golden Cross . . .

. . . or The Golden Compass?

Me too. Now I know it may seem like I'm just embarrassed about my faith. Embarrassed about it? How can I be embarrassed about it when I don't even recognize it?
Well then—maybe "embarrassed about my faith" is too strong. Maybe I'm just not up to defending my faith? But if prayer and face-to-face argument with the infidels don't count as "defending my faith," then I'm not sure what does. Sure, I haven't shed my blood for the faith (yet). But I'd sooner shed my blood for it than write schlock for it. I hope.
No doubt there's an element of Pride (the unhealthy, seven-deadly-sins kind of Pride) in that sentiment; but it's not just about the Pride. It's about Fittingness. When I stand up at the Last Judgment, and God asks how I've used the artistic talent He gave me, I'd rather not have to display the literary equivalent of this:

I'm shooting for something more like this:

. . . or maybe this:

. . . or even this:

Now I don't want to offend you Precious Moments fans out there . . .
. . . but I'm pretty sure that "cute" is not the image we want to be sending to Christopher Hitchens, the Taliban and Count Grisnackhor. (Whadayya mean, "Count Who?" This guy.) It's not really representative of who we are, and we'd rather they didn't think so.
More importantly, I think we Christians deceive ourselves when we think that a work's Christian themes are enough to make it worthy of our patronage. I'm all for supporting the starving Catholic artists in your backyard, but I'd rather you supported us by feeding us the occasional dinner and helping out with the rent. Don't encourage us to write the next Narnia chronicles, because we will, and they will be terrible. There was only one C.S. Lewis, and only one Tolkien. The rest of us should find something else to do.
But even when explicitly "Christian" or "Catholic" art is done well—I'm thinking, for example, of Michael O'Brien's novels, which are not (I know) to everyone's taste, but are splendidly written nonetheless—I'm still a bit leery of it. Not because I don't like books that scream "Catholic!", but because the existence of a few such books tends to create the impression among up-and-coming writers and publishers that Catholics require a steady diet of such books. Au contraire. I think in a time when normalcy is increasingly under attack, a book that champions the NORMAL without mention of the NUMINOUS might well be even more profitable, for believers and non-believers alike, than a work that is explicitly Christian would be.
In Book 3 ("The Harp of Alfred") of Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred tells his pagan audience:
"Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.

"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

"For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow."

King Alfred was meant to preserve everything that withered under the heathens' hedonistic rule—the "monkish orders", to be sure, but also the White Horse itself, which predates both Christianity and the new paganism of the invading Danes. The a-Christian White Horse couldn't survive without Christianity, for only the Christian God "hath blessed creation."
God has blessed creation. Not just those parts of it that speak most clearly of Him, but all of it. Not just altar lamps, but also apples. Not just the religious life, but also marriage. Not just Dante, but also Homer. Not just Owen Francis Dudley (maybe), but also Lucy Maude Montgomery (we think).
I don't think we don't need another Michael O'Brien—which is not at all to denigrate his work, which is wonderful. I don't think we don't need another Msgr. Benson (though if you haven't read his work, you should). We need another Shakespeare. We need another Jane Austen.
As long as we Christians continue to produce art because we are Christians, we will tend to produce bad art. Period. By all means, let your faith shine out in your work, be it construction or tax preparation or wax modeling. But if your shining faith manifests itself in peeling paint, IRS audits, and dripping sculptures, perhaps you'd better think less about shining and more about getting the job done. (And if you thought your job was sculpting, consider another line of work.) We should be scandalized that mere good intentions are considered a substitute for talent and effort—and even more scandalized that Christianity is supposed to demand such a consideration. If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly; but don't expect other people to look at it!
Think for a moment what a world it would have been if John Donne's publisher had told him to go back home and write about God instead of about women. We would never have gotten to read . . .
Go and chase a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past things are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot;
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
And to keep off envies stinging . . .

. . . or . . .
O ! do not die, for I shall hate
All women so, when thou art gone,
That thee I shall not celebrate,
When I remember thou wast one.

. . . or . . .
Take heed of loving me ;
At least remember, I forbade it thee ;
Not that I shall repair my unthrifty waste
Of breath and blood, upon thy sighs and tears,
By being to thee then what to me thou wast ;
But so great joy our life at once outwears.
Then, lest thy love by my death frustrate be,
If thou love me, take heed of loving me.
Take heed of hating me,
Or too much triumph in the victory ;
Not that I shall be mine own officer,
And hate with hate again retaliate ;
But thou wilt lose the style of conqueror,
If I, thy conquest, perish by thy hate.
Then, lest my being nothing lessen thee,
If thou hate me, take heed of hating me.

Yet love and hate me too;
So these extremes shall ne'er their office do ;
Love me, that I may die the gentler way ;
Hate me, because thy love's too great for me ;
Or let these two, themselves, not me, decay ;
So shall I live thy stage, not triumph be.
Lest thou thy love and hate, and me undo,
O let me live, yet love and hate me too.

It's true that Donne did some splendid religious poetry later in life (the "Holy Sonnets" and "Divine Meditations", with such famous lines as "Death, be not proud" and "Batter my heart, three-personed God"). But I still think a world without "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" would be a poorer world than ours.
This applies across the board. Imagine the results if Raphael, Bach, and Dickens had been brought up to create nothing but religious art. We'd still have dozens of lovely Madonnas, a glorious Magnificat, and The Life of Our Lord. We'd also miss out on The Triumph of Galatea, The Coffee Cantata, and David Copperfield. No thank you.
Yet this is precisely what many Christian organizations do today. Write about abortion and atheism, and you're in. Write about a chess competition or a horse breeder, and you're not—unless the powerful queen becomes a metaphor for power to queens, and the horses become signs of the impending Apocalypse.
This is ghetto mentality. If we keep this up we're doomed. I don't mind being doomed, particularly. (See the bit above about being willing to shed my blood.) But I really do mind being doomed and insipid. Or doomed and predictable. Or doomed and cheesy. The Church Triumphant deserves better than this. Because while this is certainly no angel . . .

. . . and these aren't either . . .

. . . neither is this:

I always thought they were taller . . .


  1. You've hit it right on the head. I see most of this Christian schlock as a result of our consumerist society. Businessmen have created a "Christian market" to the detriment of art and Christianity, but more Christianity.

    Though I'm a little puzzled by your razzing of Christian apologists. What exactly is schlock apologetics? Arguing that Christianity is true because Mary and Joseph rode dinosaurs to church?

  2. Have you heard of Henri de Lubac and the disputes surrounding him, perchance?

  3. I wholeheartedly agree!!! Fabulous note here. I hope people read this.

    It reminds me of reading when I was little that people always like the tough scoundrel type, not for the evil he does, but for his outstanding good qualities--bravery, manliness, an ability to shrug off pain.

    It seems that these days, many Catholics/other good people want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Sometimes the baby is more important actually.

  4. So true.

    Incidentally, this is why I am always wary of businesses that use the word "Catholic" anywhere in their description of themselves publicly.

    If the focus is on doing a 'Catholic job' rather than a good job, then why wouldn't I hire a heathen to paint my house?

    I think there's a mindset that being Christian means being soft in every way possible. Yuck.

  5. @Jordan: Proof (as if more were needed) that love of money is the root of all evil. Re the apologists: I was thinking primarily of those who use their pulpit to support "Christian" art, etc., and more generally of any apologists who tie their faith to causes (social, political, scientific) that are going to drag it down longterm. (The sort of tendency Lewis criticizes in "Mere Christianity.") Though if you know any who put dinosaurs in manger scenes, I'll be happy to include them in my disapprobation!

    @Anon.: I've heard of de Lubac, but haven't read anything by (and don't know much about) him. Are you thinking of the dispute about "Surnaturel" or . . . ?

    @Jacob: Yes on the attractive villainy bit. This is why "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (for example) is WAY better than "The Phantom of the Opera". Hm, sounds like a topic for another post . . . Also why Sienkiewicz and LOTR are so wonderful.

    @Maximilian: Indeed, why wouldn't you hire a heathen, if they're honest and going to do a good job? (And there's the added bonus that you'd have a great opportunity to try converting them while their hands are filled with paintbrushes . . .) Re the softness, I always find it amusing that people remember "Turn the other cheek" and forget "Brood of vipers!"

  6. Dear Saturday;

    Well, vis-a-vis de Lubac & this essay--first, I agree with your essay inasmuch as good intentions and sacred subject matter don't make up for cruddy art. Fine.

    But then you say this. "But even when explicitly "Christian" or "Catholic" art is done well... I'm still a bit leery of it." And then you seem to state that you think, inasmuch as not merely divine positive law is under attack, but also the natural law itself, we need to defend the latter--and perhaps focus on it instead--and this doesn't require any mention of the former thing or inclusion of Catholic paraphernalia in books.

    Well, to return to HdL--HdL is infamous for pointing out what Aquinas already says in the Summa--that natural virtues are not fully virtues without Charity. (Thus, Surnaturel and all the rest of it). Or, because I like Augustine--virtutes paganorum vitia splendida. The essential point is that if man is fallen, then to defend the purely natural is to fail to defend even that, because the purely natural no longer forms a defensible whole. Grace builds on nature; but now nature cries out desperately for grace.

    To return to Chesterton--well, if it is *only* the Christian men who guard even pagan things, then apparently the purely pagan (i.e., natural) isn't enough. If only the Christian men guard pagan things, then perhaps a defense of the pagan things in literature will require explicitly Christian content. To give a long quotation from the Everlasting Man:

    "It was the best sort of paganism
    that wore the laurels of Rome. It was the best thing the world had yet
    seen, all things considered and on any large scale, that ruled from the
    wall of the Grampians to the garden of the Euphrates. It was the best
    that conquered; it was the best that ruled; and it was the best that
    began to decay.

    Unless this broad truth be grasped, the whole story is seen askew.
    Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good.
    Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of
    joy. It is when for some reason or other the good things in a society no
    longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not
    feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless."

  7. Against this it is that we can measure your return to normalcy. Normalcy was well under attack in the middling-to-late Roman empire--but Paul still spoke of Christ, and Him crucified, rather than with words of wisdom. The failure of nature meant he could not simply defend nature; to wait for most perversions to be erased before he turned from the normal to the numinous would to wait until the end of time. And it is the same for us. Chesterton said that, as regards chastity, men reach sanity in it only when they reach sanctity--I'd be happy to extend this principle to the rest of the virtues and vices as well.

    Now, if all you were saying was that we need some art about natural themes, and some art about supernatural themes, then we would agree. If you are merely saying that it is stupid for Catholics to just write about controversial, "Catholic" subjects, then we would agree. If you are merely saying that love poetry is fine and wonderful, then we would agree. But you seem to go further than that. You instead say seem to say that the best sort of art, for non-believers and believers alike, will not be motivated by one's belief about God and the Church and the Last Things. You state: "As long as we Christians continue to produce art because we are Christians, we will tend to produce bad art. Period."

    Period. Period? Surely not, Saturday. You have heard of Evelyn Waugh. You have heard of Flannery O'Connor. You have heard of Walker Percy. All of these twentieth century authors are hailed even by secularists as brilliant--and for all of them, much if not most of their work is inspired by specifically Christian / Catholic elements. They simply couldn't have written what they wrote if they hadn't been writing it because they were Christians. Period.

    In all--yes, bad Christian art is still bad art. But to say what we really, desperately need in literature is more about nature is like saying that what we really, desperately need for ethics and morals is another Aristotle. Aristotle is great, so far as he goes; but through no fault of his own, that really isn't that far.


  8. Wow, great post. Have you seen this amazing and related tidbit from Dorothy Sayers?

    "The only Christian work is good work done well. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work, whether it is Church embroidery, or sewage-farming. As Jacques Maritain says: 'If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.'

    He is right. And let the Church remember that the beauty of the work will be judged by its own, and not by ecclesiastical standards. Let me give you an illustration of what I mean.

    When my play The Zeal of Thy House was produced in London, a dear old pious lady was much struck by the beauty of the four great archangels who stood throughout the play in their heavy, gold robes, eleven feet high from wing-tip to sandal-tip. She asked with great innocence 'whether I selected the actors who played the angels for the excellence of their moral character?'

    I replied that the angels were selected, to begin with, not by me but by the producer, who had the technical qualifications for selecting suitable actors - for that was part of his vocation. And that he selected, in the first place, young men who were six feet tall, so that they would match properly together. Secondly, angels had to be of good physique, so as to be able to stand stiff on the stage for two and a half hours, carrying the weight of their wings and costumes, without wobbling, or fidgeting, or fainting. Thirdly, they must be able speak verse well, in an agreeable voice and audibly. Fourthly, they must be reasonably good actors.

    When all these technical conditions were fulfilled, we might come to the moral qualities, of which the first would be the ability to arrive on the stage punctually and in a sober condition, since the curtain must go up on time, and a drunken angel would indecorous. After that, and only after that, one might take character into consideration, but that - provided his behaviour was not so scandalous as to cause dissension among the company - the right kind of actor with no morals would give a far more reverent and seemly performance than a saintly actor with the wrong technical qualifications.

    The worst religious films I ever saw were produced by a company which chose its staff exclusively for their piety. Bad photography, bad acting, and bad dialogue produced a result so grotesquely irreverent that the pictures could not have been shown in churches without bringing Christianity into contempt.

    God is not served by technical incompetence; and incompetence and untruth always result when the secular vocation is treated as a thing alien to religion." (from Creed or Chaos)

  9. Dear Not-so,

    "[But] if man is fallen, then to defend the purely natural is to fail to defend even that, because the purely natural no longer forms a defensible whole. . . . If only the Christian men guard pagan things, then perhaps a defense of the pagan things in literature will require explicitly Christian content."

    I agree (how could I not?!) that the natural cannot stand by itself. (Indeed, I would state it more strongly than you do here, and say that that was ALWAYS the case, even before the fall--though the instability has of course been more obvious since!) I think, however, that you make a grave mistake in conflating the supernatural with the "explicitly Christian", or even with the obviously numinous. The most normal conduit for supernatural graces is of course the Church, but that is not the only conduit. The most obvious way to teach the faith is to teach its doctrines explicitly, but that is not the only way--and (here's my assertion again) may not be the most effective these days.

    Thus, it may be right to say, with Chesterton, that chastity is only achievable, finally, through sanctity. It is by no means necessary, however, that the literary images of chastity we see should be recognizable as Christian saints. It is true that few but Christians understand why chastity is valuable; and it is true that grace is necessary to achieve it; it does not therefore follow that a chaste hero or heroine need wear their Christianity on their sleeve in order for their virtue to be appreciated and the resultant happiness desired. (Think of Austen and Shakespeare here, and you'll see what I mean.) And "I'd be happy to extend this principle to the rest of the virtues and vices as well"!

    I do not mean to say that this--um--subtly and subversively Christian art, this ... merely naturally Christian ... art--is always the best kind to create; I certainly do not mean it is the only kind that should be ever created. I do feel very strongly, however, that there is currently an overemphasis (among Christians, obviously) on the overtly Christian kind, and that this emphasis is unhelpful (a) because it leads Christians to ignore the pursuit of technical and creative excellence, as if those did not matter (they do), and (b) because sometimes a little subversion is necessary to achieve conversion.

    To gloss my "we will tend to produce bad art": Don't produce art because you are Christian. (If that is all you are, produce theology instead (or some other thing you have a skill at)--be a St. Paul.) Produce art because you are an artist. If you are Christian, the art will be too (though it may not always wear its Christianity on its sleeve).

    Hope that clears my position up!

  10. Dear Love2Learn,

    I don't think I had seen that story before, but it pretty well fits with what I was thinking. "God is not served by technical incompetence; and incompetence and untruth always result when the secular vocation is treated as a thing alien to religion." Amen, Sayers!

  11. Dear Saturday,

    Your explanations are eminently reasonable and balanced, and I concede what you are saying. Alas, we likely continue to differ in emphasis and degree. But as Hume said, arguments about matters of degree are interminable: the question of whether Cleopatra was quite beautiful or quite extremely beautiful cannot be resolved.

    Gaudium et Spes 22: "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear."



  12. I found this while googling "modest dresses" - periodically I find clothing along the white-turtleneck-denim-jumper-long-white-socks lines to send to my fiance -- who is Catholic and homeschooled and absolutely in agreement with your post here.

    And I laughed harder than I have in a while. Great job. This is beautiful. And true. (And, for good measure, good.)

  13. Ha! You have NO IDEA how many people have landed on this post because of the modest dresses. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  14. Last one today before attempting "real work". Whatever is wrong with socks in sandals? Or is it white socks? Or is it white socks in birkenstocks? That must be the one, much too rhymey...

    1. *sigh* I'm afraid I object to socks in sandals categorically, unless the wearer is discalced by vow. But there is a clear gradation in terms of the gravity of the fashion offense, and it moves in exactly the direction that your remarks suggest.

      White socks in birkenstocks,
      Clocks crowned with crosses,
      Sweet baby angels perched sitting on mosses,
      Romantic novels writ for Christian flings,
      These are a few of my least favorite things!

  15. Ah, you might be the critic I need.

    If my Chronicle of Susan Pevensie (a sequel to LB and an answer to PofS by NG) has too much saccharine, you will detect it.

    Of course, that would be true about Count Grishnackh too, but he might be occupied otherwise.

    Since you mentioned Hitchens, who has meanwhile died, and whereever he is, he is not belittling Christian writers for cuteness or not doing so very effectively any more, here is an answer I gave him and Blair before I knew he died:

    Hitchens and Blair, what are you up to?