The Glorious Counter-Revolutionary Les Mis

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My grandmother was raised Roman Catholic in the 1930s. One of the first things she did when she married my grandfather, an Episcopalian, was to read, for the first time, Victor Hugo’s great love-letter to Paris, Les Misérables. During her childhood it had been on the list of books good Catholics were supposed to avoid. Today it is hard to imagine what the Catholic Church found so wrong in Hugo’s expansive novel of social injustice. The movie version of the musical has reminded us again of this great story, and it is the movie musical which I refer to in this essay. A number of insightful critics (cf. hereherehere, and here) have referred to the figure of Javert, the police inspector, as representing along with the protagonist Jean Valjean the contrast and conflict between Law and Grace. Law pursues with punishment; Grace redeems and forgives. Javert—rather like Mrs. Clennam in Dickens’ Little Dorrit—is driven by his idea of what is right, what is properly speaking legal, in conformity with the code. Everyone is defined in his mind by their relation to this law. People do not change. There are good people and lawbreakers; there can be no forgiveness, no reconciliation, no rehabilitation. Indeed, this seems at first to be the case with Jean Valjean, who at the beginning of the movie is a sullen convict, wishing to escape further punishment but without any real opportunity to become a better man.

Image of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables

After this, of course, Valjean experiences a transformative act of grace when instead of turning him in as a thief, the hospitable Bishop gives him the means to establish a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine. (Madeleine is a form of Magdalene, the name of the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven devils.) As the story plays out, Javert, as Law, continues to perversely pursue the redeemed Valjean, almost thwarting his efforts to bring grace to others. Ultimately, grace wins and spreads to others through Valjean’s acts of personal sacrifice, and Javert is driven to suicide by his own obsession with the law. That is a wonderful theological point to bring out of Les Miserables, but while watching the movie I realized that there is an idea that is even more fully embraced by this story, and in particular by Tom Hooper’s cinematic staging of the musical. It is the idea of hope, which is best explained with referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical letter Spe Salvi, which is based on Romans 8:24, “For we are saved by hope.”

Hope in Spe Salvi

Hope is one of the three great Christian virtues: Faith (fides), Hope (spes), and Love (caritas). Benedict immediately moves to understand what differentiates Hope from Faith, when Paul writes that “we are saved by hope.” It is also said that faith saves us, so what is the difference between faith and hope? In many contexts, hope is identified with faith; i.e., it is through faith in Christ that we have hope. Hope is entered into by entering into faith in Christ, as Paul exhorts the Colossians to  “…continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel…” (Col. 1:23). Faith and hope are not the same thing. Faith is an act, a disposition, an entering in, a taking hold of. Through faith, we enter into hope. Hope is something outside of a person that is in some way both anticipated in the future and taken hold of now. “Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well” (Spe Salvi §2). An extremely important characteristic of this hope is that it is not merely a belief in future happiness which in some way allows us to change our outlook on life. It is more real than that. Benedict explains this with reference to Hebrews 11 (the “By faith…” chapter) in which faith is associated with the hope of the saints. The key verse for Benedict is verse 1:

In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (v. 1) we find a kind of definition of faith which closely links this virtue with hope. Ever since the Reformation there has been a dispute among exegetes over the central word of this phrase, but today a way towards a common interpretation seems to be opening up once more. For the time being I shall leave this central word untranslated. The sentence therefore reads as follows: “Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen”. For the Fathers and for the theologians of the Middle Ages, it was clear that the Greek word hypostasis was to be rendered in Latin with the term substantia. (§7)

This sense is lost in many modern translations but is preserved in the KJV, which for some reason is always the translation of this verse that has stuck in my mind: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Other renderings of this verse significantly alter the sense, as in the NIV—”. . . being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”—or the ESV—”. . . the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” These modern translations subjectify hypostasis so that it becomes only a conviction of the individual. Benedict argues that faith is more than mere belief, because hope (what faith is the substance of) is more than a confident expectation. So what is it? Benedict expands by way of Thomas Aquinas:

[F]aith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of “substance” is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say “in embryo”—and thus according to the “substance”—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this “thing” which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not “appear”), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence. (§7)

In other words, we not only look forward to the coming of the kingdom of God, the seed of it is already planted in our hearts through faith. This seed is hope, and it grows and bears fruit in us.

Hope in Les Mis

The characters in Hooper’s Les Mis can be divided into two groups: Those who have hope, and those who reject the gift of hope. In the first number, “Look Down,” we see Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Neither of them have hope, or are even aware that there is such a thing. Javert in fact seeks self-salvation through the law, which is a false hope. Valjean and his fellow convicts wish, vainly, for compassion from society.

After his release, however, Valjean is arrested by hope through the kindness of the Bishop. With this hope living in his heart, he takes a new name—a baptismal name, if you will—and begins to live a new life marked by the reality of this hope. We next see him as the mayor of M— sur M—, where he offers hope to the women of his town in the form of honest work. In the movie, however, these women benefit from his benevolence but are not transformed, as in the sequence when, on learning that their co-worker Fantine has a child, they chase her out of the factory.

The lecherous overseer also plays a part in Fantine’s humiliation, driving her out into the street. Sin, in this way, pursues and catches hold of Fantine through the exploitation and hatred of those who are “without hope and without God in the world” (1 Thess. 2:12). In despair (lack of hope) she sells herself on the streets to support her daughter and is dying of pneumonia. In “I Dreamed a Dream” Fantine laments the loss of her hope of a happy life. As she is about to be arrested for prostitution, Valjean appears, takes her to a hospital, and promises to bring her daughter. Fantine dies, but her despair has been replaced by the hope of seeing her daughter in heaven, activated by Valjean’s promise. When Javert discovers his new identity, Valjean is forced to flee, but he is able to locate Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, who is living with the fraudster Thenardiers. They extort a large sum for her supposed keep, but Valjean manages to get away with Cosette, with Javert on his heels. The two seek refuge in a convent.

Throughout the movie, we see two recurring images: The hardness and mercilessness of society at every level, and the literally liberating and healing character of the Church. Valjean is rescued from the clutch of the law by a Bishop. When Fantine is dying, nuns care for her. Nuns, again, welcome Valjean and Cosette into their convent, as a place of refuge which even the strength of the law cannot violate. The Church is thus shown to be, almost universally, the source of true hope and redemption.

There seems to be an exception to this tendency, however, in the group of young revolutionaries we meet in the next act. Mostly from prosperous homes, they are humanitarians appalled by the destitution of the poor and the callousness of the rich and powerful. They also believe that by sparking a new French Revolution they can usher in a more just society. Marius, one of the young revolutionaries, has renounced his wealthy but cold-hearted grandfather to make common cause with the revolutionaries. Cosette, now a young woman, passes Marius in the street and they instantly fall in love. This is another instance of the mysterious advent of hope in the world, but the revolutionaries see love as a threat to their serious humanitarian endeavor, and fear it will distract Marius from his single-minded commitment to their plan. The revolutionary leader Enjolras invokes their “higher call” against which “our little lives don’t count at all.” This platitude contrasts strikingly with the nature of the story itself, which is driven by characters, not mass movements or even ideas. Each little life is a dynamic universe; each soul has a towering significance.

The Revolutionary Society
The Revolutionary Society

Valjean, on hearing of Marius and Cosette’s love, is torn between his desire for Cosette’s happiness and his fear of danger and change. However, he remains true to hope, and ventures out at personal risk to find Marius. The new French Revolution fails. In the end, the little band of revolutionaries is never reinforced by the hordes of sympathetic Parisians they hoped would join them, and they are slaughtered by the regulars. Marius alone escapes, rescued by Valjean just as Javert and the army are closing in.

Marius and Cosette marry, and Marius is reconciled to his grandfather, who is also transformed by hope when he sees their love. Valjean, however, unaware that Javert has committed suicide, fears exposure and flees once again to the convent, where at the point of death he is consoled by the shade of Fantine. As the distinction between Heaven and earth becomes blurry, Valjean takes leave of Marius and Cosette and, greeted once again by the Bishop, enters paradise.

In the finale, we see a kind of typological double-exposure. Paris, the city of lights, has become the City of God, and the larger-than-life barricade evokes the Mountain of God—both images referring to the New Jerusalem. Atop the great barricade we see once again the revolutionaries, who failed to change the political order. But with them we see also a huge crowd representing all the people of Paris who did not come to the revolutionaries’ aid, and even perhaps the soldiers with whom they fought. This is an image, not of the triumph of the revolution, but the true kingdom of triumphant hope—the kingdom of God. With this in mind, it is instructive to consider who fails to appear on the final barricade. It is all those who rejected or defiled hope on earth. The Thénardiers (except for their daughter Éponine, who is with the revolutionaries), the textile workers, the pimps and prostitutes, and Javert do not appear. The closing song describes, not a post-revolutionary state, but the eternal blessedness of the children of hope.

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword

Revolution does not beget peace and justice, but perpetuates the cycle of violence. Valjean’s story, though, shows how grace, mercy, and sacrifice can lift people up in a way that revolutionary violence cannot. The Bishop, then, who opens and closes the story of Valjean’s redemption, is the true revolutionary. His church is the permanent revolution, always opposed to the spirit of the age, whether that be Javert’s cold tyrannical legalism or the sanguine revolutionary spirit. This is why I call Hooper’s Les Misérables a “counter-revolutionary” film. It is a story of despair and hopelessness conquered by the one true hope through one man’s life.

Introductory Essay

Fra Angelico - The Visitation - 1434

Getting political

The Hipster Conservative is a very political sort of publication, because  the things we are interested in writing and talking about here are often political in nature. We did not, however, discuss the recent U.S. elections. We could attribute this to our hipsterish apathy and the scorn we show toward things that are popular and “mainstream.” The true reason, however, is that the present political culture offers only a narrow and bleak idea of politics. Here, we like to speak of “politics” in a more Aristotelian sense: of things having to with life in common with other people, especially where they have to do with creating the conditions necessary to live a virtuous and happy life. The drama acted out as “politics” on the national stage would be rated a farce in bad taste by any sensitive critic and holds at best a questionable connection to the ends of living a good life.

So much for being hipsters. As conservatives, we cannot absolutely ignore the continued predations of our natural adversary, the all-powerful State, with its lackeys and profiteers. In our public lives we fight the Minotaur in various ways. Here, we are more concerned with strengthening the intellectual foundation of the good life, while, we hope, undermining the already cracked and crazy stilts modern absolutism rests upon. Continue reading Introductory Essay

Political Implications of the Incarnation and the ‘Death of God’

Introduction

Recently someone observed that there are hardly any professed “atheists” in political office. This is remarkable not because atheists represent a large portion of the population, but because atheism is hardly even controversial in present-day society. If someone tells you that he does not believe in God, you are not shocked. You may think he is mistaken, but you are not offended by his unbelief, nor do you think he is a bad person simply because he is not convinced of God’s existence. So it is odd that there are so few professed atheists in elected office. Whether or not a person believes in God doesn’t seem to have much to do with how he or she would fulfill the duties of the public trust.

If it is nevertheless true that the public doesn’t trust atheistsas voting patterns suggest, perhaps it is because they see atheists perpetually engaged in the comic but macabre project of beating the corpse of a medieval idea, or tilting at ruined 15th-century windmills. Atheists have liberated themselves from belief, but it stings them to be reminded of what they have left by others’ faith. They seem to be crusaders for positive unbelief in the public square. This attitude, perhaps, annoys the public, who are for the most part uncomfortable with True Believers of any strain, and happy with their customary distinction between private belief (“church”) and public action (“state”).

Yet perhaps both the raging atheists and the comfortable bourgeois secularists are wrong. If God does not exist, a society of liberal Western institutions needs to reconsider its first principles, including the value of personal liberty and human rights, to see whether there is still any support for them. Can the influence of Christianity in promoting human rights be written off as insignificant? Is there a post-religious path to individual liberty? On the other hand, if God is a real omnipotent being, how is it even possible to partition him away from the public sphere?

Few seem willing to face the implications of God being either absent or present. Western liberalism, with modern roots in the Enlightenment and subsequent intellectual developments, builds upon an understanding of human equality which developed, albeit imperfectly, during the period when Christianity shaped European culture. Yet the influence of religious beliefs and institutions in the development of these liberal tenets, individual liberty and human rights, is less recognized.

I would like to discuss three connected ideas in this essay, by means of a few concepts. The first is the “death of God” as encountered in modern philosophy. The second is the “kingdom of God,” which, if it exists, must necessarily have political implications. The third is the crucial distinction between Christ and Antichrist. These three ideas are necessary for an adequate understanding of Western history and culture. For good or ill Christianity has influenced the direction of historical development toward what we see at present. If God is missing in modern Western political culture, the absence is distinctly Christ-shaped, as attempts to replace Christianity inescapably show. But if Jesus Christ is in fact reigning over the world as king, what does this mean? In closing I will suggest an interpretation of Western history in which the reign of Christ and the pretensions of various forms and manifestations of “antichrist” have continued through the epochs in a dialectical conflict which frustrates the efforts of historians and philosophers to attach the label of “Christian” to any particular nation or political order. Continue reading Political Implications of the Incarnation and the ‘Death of God’

Incarnation and Eating

The Hipster Conservative is honored to feature this guest post from Hännah of Wine and Marble.

October 2012

Loving your food

I love to eat what I eat. My pleasure at the stove and table are sincere and coherent.

— “Learning How to Eat Like Julia Child” by Tamar Adler, New Yorker

I think about this a lot—what food means to us, what it should mean to us, how we use it, how we taste it, how we feel about it, what it means to relate to food as a human being.

It’s frustrating to see people using food, instead of relating to it. “Eating is a chore,” says a friend, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say those words. This utilitarian, eat-because-I-have-to relationship with food is unhealthy at best, and is perhaps a reflection of more serious issues: displacement, non-identification with one’s physical self (is there a word for this?), and a lack of ability to savor life outside of the manufactured world of technology, efficiency, and production.

I would argue, even, that it is anti-Christian to have a merely utilitarian relationship to one’s food. I’ll write more about this later, but if God Incarnate as the man Jesus made such a point of instituting the sacrament of communion and said that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, food can never again be just something we put in our bodies (“fuel” says that horrible industrialist metaphor) to provide energy for our day. God has eaten with us and made the very act of eating together something that he not only identified with, but made a vital part of how we relate to him and each other. Continue reading Incarnation and Eating

The Incarnation in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins

In Walker Percy’s apocalyptic novel Love in the Ruins, the protagonist Dr. Thomas More recalls a road trip with his ex-wife, Doris.  It is the epitome of a young married couple’s romp: full of passion, intimacy, and carnality.  He remembers the times they used to drive out to little motels on obscure roads and “swim in the pool, take steaming baths, mix many toddies, eat huge steaks, run back to the room, fall upon each other laughing and hollering and afterwards like dreaming in one another’s arms watching late-show Japanese science fiction movies way out yonder in the lost yucca flats of Nevada. “

After nights of young conjugal bliss, Dr. More, a practicing Catholic at this point in his life, sneaks out before Doris, who was raised Episcopalian but dabbles in new age and eastern spirituality, awakes. He finds some out of the way Catholic parish and takes communion. He then heads back to the motel, beaming and renewed, having “touched the thread in the labyrinth.” Continue reading The Incarnation in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins

Straight Blows with Crooked Sticks: Flannery O’Connor and the Incarnation in Literature

The Hipster Conservative is pleased to feature this essay from Colin Cutler, who is a teacher, a warrior-poet, and the author of “The Ward of Heaven and the Wyrm in the Sea.”

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” ~Flannery O’Connor

Christian art ain’t what it used to be. Compare Veggietales to the Second Shepherd’s Play, Frank Peretti to the Divine Comedy, Beverly Lewis to the Fairie Queene, the Crystal Cathedral (the one in California or the one in Dillwyn, VA) to Notre Dame in Paris. And let’s not start on the music.

It’s my contention that Christian art has lost its soul because Christians have lost sight of what it means for the Logos to have become Sarx—for God to become incarnate and to join Himself with human flesh.  “Christian” art will be neither good nor thoroughly Christian until we regain this understanding.  Since I am a writer, I will take Christian literature as my chief theme and Flannery O’Connor as my chief example.

Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic short story writer from the 1950s, argued that the unique concern of Christianity is the Incarnation: “It’s not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others.  That can be found in any ethical culture series.  It is the fact of the Word made Flesh.”

Perhaps the most explicitly incarnational of her stories is “Parker’s Back.” Continue reading Straight Blows with Crooked Sticks: Flannery O’Connor and the Incarnation in Literature

The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Part 3 of 3 (see also parts one and two)

All good things come to an end, they say, and so must this series on the limits of Burkean conservatism. First, we discussed how the landscape of tradition has changed: what was revolutionary and inimical to the great heritage of mankind has since become “traditional” while even more radically progressive features dot the minds of many men. Thus, the moderate change championed by fair Edmund would simply be part of the problem—to assert the truth, goodness, and beauty with which Burke himself was trying to preserve makes one into a sort of radical himself, often contrary to the tastes and policies of his immediate predecessors. Similarly, we looked at Chesterton’s critique, where there’s a sort of Social 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. We must not simply accept evolutionary politics—if something is a universal truth or goodness, then it needs to be restored, often against the tide of fans of moderating inertia. In many ways, the eternal God and His Law cannot be kicked out of the equation. One sometimes has to willfully fight against a kind of political and social entropy—a practice that is not easily gathered from Burke’s corpus of thought.

On the other hand, something has changed through history. I am different from the ancient as well as the medieval man, in a way similar to how I am different from a foreigner. What has changed—especially for Western contemporary man—when contrasted with his ancestors? Continue reading The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Expanding the Concept of Sustainability

Painting by Camille Pissarro: The Church and Farm of Eragny (1895)
Camille Pissarro: The Church and Farm of Eragny (1895)

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “sustainability?”

Among most in the conservative movement, “sustainability” evokes a feeling of suspicion, and an inclination to disagree with whatever is being said. Conversely, it is almost a “God-term” for the progressive/transgressive Left. This is an irony, and being an intelligent reader you can probably already see where I am going with this.

Absent political misuse, “sustainability” is a positive term, suggesting continuity, stability, order, peace. However, it has been disingenuously employed in the service of suspicious causes, precisely because it is such a positive term in itself. Of course, some libertarians, in a parody of themselves, rush the barricades to show how thinking responsibly about the future is harmful, and the invisible hand will take care of everything. But among conservatives who do not believe that anarcho-capitalism will solve our problems, or that “greed is good,” a viewpoint is lacking which will avoid the political non-solutions of both Left and Right.

Sustainability is a concept we hear a lot about in terms of natural ecology. Ecologists are concerned, rightly, that civilization not get into a situation in which it runs out of the physical resources it needs to persist. But almost invariably today it seems that those most visibly concerned about ecology (the Gulfstream Greens) have little to no concern for human culture. Thus we have Prince Philip and Bill and Melinda Gates, for instance, advocating a ludicrous Malthusian ideology of “zero population growth” which if carried out would spell disaster for human civilization (and, I note incidentally, the environment as well).

Hipster conservatives, readers of Wendell Berry that we are, readily admit that the natural world is beautiful and alive, resilient and fragile, requiring affection and stewardship–a word which suggests mankind’s caretaking role. In this issue of The Hipster Conservative I propose that we expand our use of “sustainability” to encompass not only our interactions with the natural world, but our views on culture, society, and the state–the human world–as well. I suggest that in addition to its application to the natural world we adopt the following three-part expansion of the idea of sustainability:

  • “Moral Ecology”–moral and ethical foundations stable enough to sustain strong, diverse, and compassionate human societies;
  • “Social Sustainability”–structures which encourage the formation of strong, long-lasting social units; and
  • “Cultural Conservation”–an approach to arts and letters tending to preservation and cultivation of cultural heritage, not its perversion.

These categories are impossible to wholly separate from one another, just as they also cannot be separated from stewardship of nature. But natural ecology itself cannot be sustained unless we pay attention to culture.

We got the idea for this theme of sustainability when we were reading Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (You may have noticed some commonplaces in the previous issue.) In this story, a group of merrymaking upper-class young people, nihilists with nothing to do but run around doing mischief, happen upon a tragic scene: a quiet, respectable lad from the country has committed suicide in a hotel after squandering, in four days of debauchery, the money his family had saved up for years and entrusted to him to purchase his sister’s wedding trosseau. The merrymakers treat this tragedy as one more joke, and some even jokingly taste the grapes and wine the young man had been eating before he shot himself.

The young suicide is an image of the sacrilegious and flippant upper-class nihilists: They are wasting the cultural patrimony of many generations with their riotous and immoral behavior and ideas. The only difference is that they can seemingly afford to do so, while the country boy is utterly and immediately ruined. (See the excerpt at the end of this month’s issue.)

This situation warrants comparison to present-day pop culture. The popular and political culture of today is really what Philip Rieff called an “anti-culture,” feeding destructively as it does upon the ideas and institutions of the past. This is largely true on both the political Right and Left, although the Right still largely acknowledges the importance of positive cultural institutions such as the family, the church, and public order. But the anti-culture of narcissism and antinomianism is a serpent devouring its own tail; it tends to disorder and ruin of all kinds.

The idea of “sustainability” thus applies. The anti-culture cannot be sustained. Nihilism cannot sustain itself; it can only exist by devouring, and the culture that sustains itself by consuming itself will eventually kill itself.

In this issue, we concern ourselves with some of the aspects of cultural sustainability mentioned above. We know that religious institutions at their best are cultural stabilizers and preservatives; I explore how religious institutions may themselves be sustained. Separately, I also consider the issue of religious circumcision which has been in the news.

Glaucon, a new contributor, contributes an appreciation of one of the most unique and underappreciated economists of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Ropke, and his Humane Economy. Our historian and cultural critic Bede Adulescens discusses Russian punk feminists and Lana Del Rey.

Cultural sustainability depends in large measure upon having children to pass the culture on to. We are very pleased to feature in this issue an essay by the Catholic blogger Marc Barnes. Despite his young age, Mr. Barnes rivals some of today’s best Christian apologists in his ability to contend forcefully and reasonably for his beliefs. His essay, uniting science and sociology, is entitled “Sustainable Sex.”

We also received a lengthy and impassioned critique of N.W. Smith’s review of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, from a Mr. Newcastle. This response was very much in the spirit of thoughtful yet high-spirited writing we seek to promote, so we have published it in this issue, along with a rejoinder from Bede more or less expressing the opinions of the editorial board.

I hope you enjoy this issue of The Hipster Conservative, and look forward to bringing you the final issue of 2012 come November.

–Holgrave

Sustainable Religion

Painting by Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)
Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)

Christianity will save the world again, as it has in the past. But how are we to save Christianity?

***

One of the most important components of a “sustainable” culture is religion. Religion helps to sustain and keep stable a culture by exalting mankind beyond his political and economic context. It gives him an ultimate perspective by proposing ends for human desire and effort that are outside of and transcend society, but which are pursued through virtuous and even sacrificial actions within society. Religion encourages compassion for other human beings and creates support networks of other people who share common commitments, habits, and aims.

Religion fosters institutions to care for those inside and outside the faith, especially those members of society who are most vulnerable. Religious institutions found hospitals, shelters, and kitchens; operate family support agencies; and offer counseling, rehabilitation, and reconciliation.

Religious belief sustains society by causing a person to act more virtuously than he needs to in order to placate society at large, since he compares his behavior to a standard which exceeds the morality of society. Civil laws, though necessary to curb evil, are poor substitutes for the transcendent standard of Judeo-Christian morals and ethics. A religious person considers himself to be accountable to a higher power.

We suspect that not all religions–or all sects within any particular religion–are equal in these beneficial effects, and some may also introduce harm to a society through false and wicked beliefs which prompt people not to be concerned for the well-being of others or act justly with a mind to right standing before God. I write as of Christianity, the only religion of which I have any first-hand experience, though other religions exhibit some of the same beneficial and harmful effects. Here, though, I do not propose to judge various faiths and religious movements according to their effects on society. Rather, within the context of Christianity, I will attempt to show what religious practices tend to preserve a type of religious faith most likely to sustain itself over generations, and secondarily, exert the most beneficial influence for a sustainable and stable society.

“Mainline decline”

We’ve heard a lot about “mainline decline.” Membership in the historic American “mainline” Protestant churches (United Methodist, Episcopal, ELCA, PCUSA, UCC, and others) has been diminishing for decades. The membership of these churches is failing to renew itself either by raising children in the church or evangelizing their neighbors. Conflict over liberalization of theological and moral teaching is also driving many members away. As the mainlines wither, a wide variety of evangelical and charismatic churches have gained numbers and influence. Many of these are independent congregations or small alliances of churches. Others, like the Southern Baptist Convention, are huge denominations. What they have in common is a commitment to the truth of the Bible and a desire for a real experience of God which seems to be lacking in the “mainline” churches.

Is evangelical Christianity sustainable?

Evangelicalism has benefited, one might say, from the decline of the mainline churches. But the sustainability of evangelical Christianity has also been a topic of concern in the religious press for some time. Their concern is the next generation of Christians, particularly adolescents and young adults. The National Association of Evangelicals said, in 2006, that there is “an epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.” A New York Times feature that same year quoted youth discipleship pioneer Ron Luce as saying that in spite of all efforts to retain Christian young people, on the whole, “we’re losing.” Also in 2006, The Barna Group issued a study claiming “that despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years – and often beyond that.” If evangelicalism is losing the interest of young people, it may end up being the transient religious expression of the Baby Boomers.

What are the characteristics of young evangelical spirituality? The NYT article features a kind of event which may represent the most significant religious experience of many young evangelicals, “a Christian youth extravaganza and rock concert” organized by Ron Luce’s Teen Mania Ministries. The two-day rally featured pyrotechnics, performances by Christian rock bands, symbolic destruction of “worldly” items such as CDs to show commitment to Jesus, and all sorts of glitzy Christian-themed paraphernalia. The purpose of all of this was to persuade Christian teenagers to devote their lives to Christian belief and behavior and become separate from the world. So how’s it working?

In 2010, the Pew Forum published a comprehensive statistical survey, “Religion Among the Millennials,” comparing various indicators of religious affiliation and practice across generational lines. One interesting feature of their charts is that each generation considered by itself tends to increase in most statistical indicators of religiosity as it gets older. But reassuring as this may be to the parent whose child has abandoned the faith, the Pew study also clearly shows that among members of “Gen X” and the “Millennial” generation, spirituality has ebbed much lower than in previous generations. Across measures such as “strong” religious affiliation, attendance at religious services, personal prayer, perceived importance of religion, belief in God, belief in the Bible as the literal word of God, and views on moral issues, the “Millennial” generation (born after 1980) ranks as the least religious, though not much less religious than Generation X (born after 1964).

What is the cause of this decline in religion among American youth? Why are children leaving the faith of their parents more now than ever? According to Kenda Creasy Dean, author of Almost Christian, their parents’ faith is the problem: “…for the most part we have traded the kind of faith confessed and embodied in the church’s most long-standing traditions for the savory stew of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Dean suggests that evangelical children are not abandoning their parents’ religious beliefs, but remaining faithful to their parents true religion, which is not authentic Christianity but a sort of indefinable niceness.

“The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on “folks like us”—which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all.” (Dean 12)

An experiment in social criticism

C.S. Lewis, who in his day was best known as a literary critic, suggests in An Experiment in Criticism that instead of judging people’s taste by the books they read, we might try to judge books by the people who read them and the way in which they tend to be read. Lewis asks whether the reader’s approach to a book is one of ‘use’ or ‘reception’ : “The ‘user’ wants to use this content–as pastime for a dull or torturing hour, as a puzzle, as a help to castle-building, or perhaps as a source for ‘philosophies of life’. The ‘recipient’ wants to rest in it. It is for him, at least, temporarily an end.” (Lewis 89)

The question then becomes, regarding a particular book: In what way do the people who appreciate this book enjoy it? Is it for them an aid to what Lewis calls “egoistic castle-building,” or a means to pass the time on the bus or in the waiting room, or do they believe the book has value beyond its usefulness? An instruction manual, for instance, may be useful, sufficient, even excellent, but it is not literature. Nobody would contest this. Where the question becomes more difficult is when a literary claim is made on behalf of some new work which, say, appeals to the prurient interest. Some works of great literature are sexually explicit. One might perhaps say that such a book is pornographic and should be avoided; but that is the work of the censor, not the critic. It is a question of moral, not literary judgment. The critic should instead ask whether the readers of this book seek it it out because of the sexual thrill it excites, or for a different reason.

To put it another way, what sort of readers does the book attract? Are its enthusiasts people who seek out books as a means to visceral excitation and the alleviation of boredom, or for the love of excellence in words, stories, and craft for their own sake, for the sake of impartial enjoyment? The highest passions are eventually also the strongest–eventually–but they cannot be experienced by those who are always chasing after immediate sensory gratification.

Lewis’s experimental framework can be adapted to social criticism. Regarding what seems to be the predominating mode of contemporary American religion, something that I will here for convenience call ‘big evangelicalism’ to differentiate it from more traditional churches and denominations, we can ask the same kind of questions:

  1. In its discipleship of young people, does big evangelicalism treat the Christian faith as something primarily useful to accomplish a function, or primarily to be received for what it is? Is Christianity a functional life-philosophy that helps you get through life and beyond, or is it something that attracts you for its own sake?

  2. What sorts of people tend to be the leading lights of big evangelicalism? What are the religious, moral, and cultural characteristics of its adherents? How does it affect them?

  3. Does big evangelicalism attract a broad, non-homogenous group of people, who share not external characteristics but a desire for the thing itself?

  4. Does big evangelicalism have cultural staying power? Is it distinct enough to become, in the terms of literature, “classic?”

Much of the religious teaching offered to young evangelicals is oriented around presenting Christianity as a functional philosophy of life, a “worldview” with tangible benefits for the individual. While Christianity does serve these functions, they are its side effects rather than its main purpose, which is to bind people to God through Christ as part of a covenant community, the Church. Unfortunately, religious devotion among evangelical teens–and, to be fair, in these settings it is often fervently expressed–tends to be emotionally intense but shallow in thought and extremely individualistic.

The leaders of big evangelicalism are an interesting bunch. Of Time magazine’s 2005 list of “25 most influential evangelicals,” at least twelve of the featured leaders founded or operate a parachurch organization not affiliated with any church or denomination. Only seven of the 25 (27 counting Franklin Graham and Beverly LaHaye) have been pastors of churches, while only six of the 25 are affiliated with a traditional denomination–and two of these are Roman Catholic (Rick Santorum and Richard John Neuhaus). At least ten are politically influential. From them, big evangelicalism takes on a character of cultural concern not united to the teachings of a particular church or, in most cases, any church body at all. Church recedes into the background of social and political activism.

Big evangelicalism has middle-class values and markets itself strongly to the middle class. The megachurch is a properly suburban phenomenon, and evangelical Christianity largely reflects suburban values. (Where else could you have acres of free parking going mostly unused except on Sundays, yet with a large enough local population to fill the stadium seats?) It caters to consumerist values, generally placing a high premium on “customer” satisfaction and personalization of experience. It is much like a modern business, offering a religious product as competitively and efficiently as possible with large economies of scale. Architecturally and in terms of its business model, the megachurch is the religious equivalent of the Target Superstore, complete with in-house Starbucks. If Christianity is a subculture because the surrounding culture has serious problems, that’s a fair reason for it to be a subculture; but if a particular church is a subculture because it only attracts people with certain cultural characteristics or of a particular socioeconomic class, it is likely not fulfilling its Christian purpose.

Is big evangelicalism here to stay, or is it a transient religious fad? Can it pass itself on to the next generation of Christians, or will they, like their parents, end up looking for a different way to be Christian, or leave the faith altogether? Too often the religion taught to evangelical young people follows the contours of what Kenda Creasy Dean calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:”

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most major world religions.

  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.

  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (Dean 14)

These do not suffice for a sustainable Christian faith.

Fundamentalists encounter a different problem. The fundamentalist movement began as a reaction to liberalizing churches (such as the mainlines) which were compromising the historic Protestant faith traditions by surrendering to German skepticism and other intellectual acids. Fundamentalists recognized that truth was at stake, and founded denominations based on the strong affirmation of Biblical truth. Unfortunately, fundamentalists today are marked less by courage than by fear. One may identify this in fundamentalists’ continual worry over political problems and secularism. But fear is also apparent in the tendency of fundamentalists to teach and behave in ways that isolate them from their fundamentalist and evangelical peers because of disputes over minor issues. Religion, for many fundamentalists, is a matter of loyalty to a text, a moral system, and a set of propositions about God and the world. All of these things are true and good, and should not lightly be abandoned. Yet, many fundamentalists have allowed themselves, while holding on to these things, to drift away from the authentic experience of Jesus Christ, which alone enlightens and sustains the Christian religion. In evangelical protestantism, the true corporate experience of Jesus Christ in the liturgy has been replaced by unsatisfying and infrequent substitutes: individual conversion experiences as a test of faith, non-sacramental “altar calls,” family-friendly radio, and spiritual emotionalism instead of mature spiritual depth–all of which foster an individualized faith that even for the most devout can be seen as separate from the church’s corporate and true life in Jesus Christ.

How can a church pass on the authentic experience of God in Jesus Christ to another generation of young people? We recognize of course that the process depends on God’s favor and that there is no infallible method for making teens grow up Christian. But surely there are better ways to do it than 3-day Christian music festivals.

A sustainable faith

The following description of young people in a traditional religious setting strikes a contrast with accounts of young adult attrition in American churches. Richard Rymarz and Marian de Souza studied Coptic Christian immigrants in Australia, and found that, rather than straying, Coptic youth tended to continue to practice their faith throughout their teen and young adult years. Statements drawn from interviews with twenty Copts between the ages of 24 and 32  indicate a firm faith. Young Copts have a high regard for their clergy and involve them in major life decisions like getting married, which means they tend to marry within the Coptic community. They have a high regard for the particular religious traditions of the Coptic community, including the ancient liturgy and the discipline of fasting, and see them as a source of spiritual life. Their professional and social lives are not isolated from the world, nor do they entirely abstain from alcohol, but they take care to surround themselves with Coptic peers who can hold them accountable to Christian behavior. They believe strongly in the authority of Scripture:

Here is how a young Copt links the Bible with the problems of everyday life:

“We also go by the Bible a lot.  We use it in practically everything we do, not as a storybook, not as a myth, not as a metaphor but as pretty much the answer to everyday life. So looking at somebody in a bad way, the Bible says that is exactly the same as committing adultery. That would be exactly the same as committing adultery . . . and it is not symbolic or just a fairy tale or something like.”

Evangelical youth ministers would be jealous of such an articulate yet spontaneous answer, a far cry from “benign whatever-ism.” Rymarz and DeSouza suggest that the cohesiveness and generational integrity of the Coptic community is due to various aspects of their religious practice, and not just a result of living in an immigrant community. Some of these strengths include:

  • A high degree of support for church hierarchy, its leaders and clergy

  • Close relationships with clergy, who are viewed as spiritual fathers and consulted over life decisions

  • Identification with and loyalty to the church’s history and traditions

  • Practice of prayer and fasting

  • Opportunity to take on appropriate formal ministry roles, such as deacon

  • Belief in the truth and importance of Scripture

  • Memorization of creedal formulas encapsulating core truths

Rymarz and DeSouza’s description of the way these young Christians live suggests that they see no disconnect between Christianity and their everyday lives, even as they live and work in a society which does not, as a whole, share their values.

How religions come into being

I believe religions, broadly speaking, originally come into being through an authentic encounter with reality. Pagan pantheism, one might say, is authentic in that it results from the cumulative encounter of ancient peoples with the unexplainable mystery of the natural world and, it may be, the spirits and forces which inhabited it. Monotheistic Judaism surpasses paganism because it stems from a personal encounter with a God who, having created all things, is beyond and outside of nature. He cannot be known through observation but only his self-revelation. Classical philosophy did perhaps knock at the gates of Heaven, but the divine being of Plato could not be personally known in the same way as the God of the Hebrews. God’s special and ongoing interaction with Abraham and his descendents made them into a unique people who were united not only by family ties but also a common relationship with God.

Christianity inherited the Jewish tradition, but reinterpreted it in light of an even more stunning revelation of God: the incarnation of God the Son as a man. Rather than revealing himself as something wholly separate, God went so far as to identify with us, to become a man and participate in our life, and even, through his death, participate in the curse of our first parents and redeem us from it. This action of his atoning death is the nexus of history and the source of the Christian faith. The Christian religion at its core exists to make the  work of Jesus a reality for everyone, and the central action of Christianity is the action which brings his saving death and life authentically into the present, uniting all believers to him and to one another. This action is of course Holy Communion, or the Eucharist.

If people’s connection to the divine is not renewed, they will look for alternatives. The religion of the mainline churches is “empty” inasmuch as many practitioners no longer believe that what they are doing is authentic. Scriptures to them are profound human documents, or records of religious experience, but are not divinely inspired or infallible, and do not themselves communicate grace to readers. Holy actions they regard as traditions that are meaningful in some way, but not sacred in themselves and subject to alteration be altered if they see fit. So our parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers, got tired of inauthentic mainline Christianity. Many found a more authentic experience of God in charismatic or evangelical fellowships. But evangelical, charismatic, and fundamentalist churches, though they are more likely to believe the words of the Bible, regularly teach the fundamental truths of the gospel, and practice evangelism, give too much emphasis to the individual and not enough to the Body. The evangelical churchgoer is left without a clear sense of his place and membership in the corporate unity of the Church, the Body of Christ. Evangelical protestants also tend overwhelmingly to overlook the sacraments which bind Christians together in Christ. Megachurches raise the individualistic tendency of evangelicalism to an ultimate preoccupation with their focus on delivering a worship product tailored to the individual consumer. If church is really all about the needs of the consumer, he loses the sense of being a member of a larger body. He chooses to attend a church only because it delivers the religious products he wants. What he does not get is a sense that he belongs to the church in any way other than a merely voluntary membership, as in an interest group of some kind.

Young people are perhaps always preoccupied with authenticity, perceiving a general lack of it in themselves and in society. An authentic and true connection to Jesus Christ, then, should be the number one priority of those involved in youth ministry. And I don’t think this means having more altar calls, Switchfoot concerts, or endless guilt trips about frequency of personal devotions. I believe we need to teach children, teenagers, and young adults how to eat Christ as part of a worshipping Body. This can be accomplished with or without a praise band, cool graphics, or edgy haircuts. These things are mistaken for relevance, but to the main issue they are completely irrelevant. The Body of Christ is the central and eternally relevant element of a sustainable Christian religion, because by this He himself sustains the church.

Sustainable Sex

Painting by Edward Burne-Jones: Love Among The Ruins (1894)
Edward Burne-Jones: Love Among The Ruins (1894)

The Editors are pleased to bring you this guest post from Marc Barnes of Bad Catholic. The subject matter necessitates a more explicit treatment than our usual PG-rated content.

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Our culture is sexually schizophrenic.

On the one hand, it has become acceptable to purchase torture porn at Barnes & Noble. On the other, as the Daily Mail reports, “around one per cent of the world’s population [approximately 70 million people] are ‘asexuals’ who feel no sexual attraction at all,” a growing group seeking recognition as the fourth sexual orientation.

On the one hand, anal sex is more popular than ever, sex shops are reporting massive increases in the sale of nipple clamps, and the average age a boy is exposed to hardcore pornography is 14, all to which we applaud: Sexy stuff indeed. But on the other — as a 2011 article published in Psychology Today concluded — the use of internet pornography has created a generation of men who cannot be aroused by their actual, real life partners, and that “many are becoming convinced that [erectile dysfunction] at twenty-something is normal.” Not so sexy.

We talk more and more about the marvelous act of coitus, and we’re happily exposed to every arousing portion of the human body that can be used to sell us beer, cars, and deodorant — yet sex itself seems to be less and less fun. Only 64 percent of women report having an orgasm in their last sexual encounter (despite 85 percent of men thinking their partner had an orgasm), and in a recent survey, it was shown that 63 percent of married women would rather “do something else” than have sex with their husbands — watching a movie being the most popular alternative.

All in all, we cannot make up our minds between getting our freak on and collapsing into an armchair, bored and dissatisfied.

There is a parallel we might draw with this phenomenon of both inaction and action, of the simultaneous whittling of sex into an boring, unimportant non-thing and the hyping up of sex into an ultra-eroticized idol: Death.

In their death throes, humans fade into nothingness while flailing in fits of energy. At the end of all action, there is a panic of action. This saddens me to no end, for sex is awesome, beautiful, unifying, and life-giving, and yet we see mirrored in our sexual culture what we see in death — grotesque action on the way to final inaction. Is sex dying?

Read an interview by The Guardian entitled “Why sex could be history,” and you’ll find that the answer — for some — is a happy affirmative. Here author Aarathi Prasad points out that science has made it possible to divorce sex from reproduction, and that we should no longer view the two as intertwined. Sex is no longer strictly necessary to human beings.

Or look at the general “Christian” response to the sexual culture, incarnated in abstinence-education programs: Sex is dirty thing, a dangerous thing, an evil thing. Perhaps this is not intention of those running such programs, but it is another affirmative response to the death of sex.

If we are witnessing the cultural death of sex, I — for one — am unsurprised. Farming unsustainably kills the land. Running a business with unsustainable resources kills the business. Sustainability is the capacity to endure, and our current sexual culture is unsustainable.

Pornography and subsequent masturbation have set an impossibly high standard for women. Men have seen hundreds of fake-breasted, airbrushed, aroused-to-the-point-of-myocardial-infarction pixels, all contorted into positions that would make an Olympic gymnast proud — before they have lain with an actual, warm-blooded woman. As Naomi Wolf noted in her article “The Porn Myth”:

Here is what young women tell me on college campuses when the subject comes up: They can’t compete, and they know it. For how can a real woman—with pores and her own breasts and even sexual needs of her own (let alone with speech that goes beyond “More, more, you big stud!”)—possibly compete with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable at will, who comes, so to speak, utterly submissive and tailored to the consumer’s least specification?

For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.

Worse, the practice of masturbation releases oxytocin into the male system, a chemical that facilitates human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear. All the joy, comfort and unity that sex brings are being sold to pornography, and a psychological attachment is made — not to a woman — but to a screen. It’s no wonder that we’re witnessing a generation of men addicted to pixels but unable to perform with an actual person. Our current sexual culture is fed by pornography (which it seems to be, given that approximately 70 percent of men ages 18-24 regularly visit porn sites), which supplies us with demands of sex that cannot be met in reality. It is unsustainable.

As is our contraceptive mentality. We’ve made our sex depend on contraception, but contraception cannot provide. Contraception offers us freedom from unwanted pregnancy, but despite the near universal use of contraception, one out of every two American pregnancies are unplanned, and two thirds of unplanned pregnancies — representing about two million annual pregnancies — are unwanted. Sixty percent of abortions are performed on women who were using contraception at the time they conceived a child. Contraception offers us protection against STDs, but again, despite universal access, 1 in 4 Americans will contract an STD in their lifetime, and it won’t be the penicillin-treatable gonorrhea or syphilis that our Land Before Condoms enjoyed. It’ll be one of approximately twenty-five unique and exciting STDs that exploded out of the sexual revolution — most likely incurable.

Whether this failure could be turned around by even more education and access to contraception is doubtful, but ultimately not the point. Our contraceptive mentality is currently unsustainable, for it claims as its own a goal it does not meet: Consequence-free sex.

Unsustainability leads to death, and death is characterized by a paradoxical meeting of grotesque action on its way to final inaction. We can see the unsustainability. Whether we are desperately crying for increased comprehensive sex education and access to birth control, or just as desperately for the return of sacredness to the act of sex, we are united in desperation, united over the fact that the sexual culture is not as it should be. We can see the grotesque action, whether in the hundreds of thousands of child pornography sites accessed daily or the sudden chic of torture porn. And we can see the final inaction, the paling of sex, the sexual dysfunction.

All I’m suggesting is that these things are not unrelated: Our culture is experiencing the untimely death of sex.

But we are not our culture. We, individual human beings, can do whatever we want. We can respectfully give the middle finger to the culture and walk away, in a fashion not unlike a man walking from an exploding building without looking over his shoulder. There is a growing movement of people advocating what I’ll broadly term as “sustainable sex”: Sex that endures. Sex that leads neither to its own destruction, nor the hurt and destruction of those enjoying it. Sex that makes no unrealistic demands of the pornographic variety, nor the unrealistic demand of total freedom from consequence.

Sex that seeks to be healthy, free from the chemicals of contraception that harm the human body and the environment, and avoiding the multiple-partner lifestyle that brings with it the high risk of STDs.

Sex that seeks to be responsible, acknowledging the power of intercourse to create new life, and instead of desperately trying to suppress it — which only works for so long — actually planning a family, using a woman’s natural indicators of fertility to effectively choose when and when not to have children.

It’s an awesome thing, watching more and more people turn to a holistic understanding of sex, to beautiful, life-giving marriages, and to the use of natural methods of family planning. It’s as awesome as it is necessary, this revolution of the heart, for our sexual culture will either embrace sustainability or die.

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Marc Barnes is the writer of Bad Catholic and the proprietor of 1flesh.org. Our appreciation of his work is entirely unironic, and we liked him before he was cool.