Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Defense of Catholic Gloominess

A decade ago there was a movie out called Dogma that was pretty offensive. However, there was one particular part that provides good fodder for discussion. The scene involves a cardinal played by George Carlin (that should tell you all you need to know), who is helping to unveil a new Catholic intiative called Catholicism Wow! The idea behind it is that the Church should update herself and make herself more relevant. At the conclusion of the scene, a new statue, meant to be representative of this attempt at  renewal,  is revealed. The statue is an image of Jesus with a big smile on his face, giving the thumbs up and winking at the people. The name of the statue is "Buddy Christ". 

As much as I detest the cynicism of this movie, the director does stumble upon something significant. A common criticism leveled against the Catholic Church is that she is always inducing guilt and promoting a kind of theological dreariness. From tortuous crucifixes to the Stations of the Cross, at best you might hope for a statue of Jesus looking mildly sympathetic— at worst a collection of stone gods at various stages of suffering, accompanied by an image of God the Father looking visibly displeased (presumably at us).

What is not often asked is what the alternative might look like. Do we really want The Church of the Smiling Jesus? Most of us have seen what that looks like and would prefer that it return to the infernal coloring book from whence it came. When people complain that religion is not cheery enough for them, what they are really saying is that it is not frivolous enough for them. They would much prefer that “Father Uncle” tell them a nice heart warming story about “Footprints”, and get on with it, rather than prattling on about some antiquated obligation to which they no longer adhere. However, statues honoring heroes are not built so that we can laugh at them; they are built so that we can remember them, or better still, so that we can remember ourselves. The business of art is immortality, and for this reason it is no wonder that it has an air of immutability about it. Walk into to any decent art gallery and count how many smiles you see. Eternity may have some good jokes to tell, but for now it prefers to remain deadpan.

The truth is if God went about smiling all of the time, it is doubtful that anyone would take Him seriously. And what could be worse than a frivolous God? That is not to say that God can't smile- only that the consequences of his levity (at least from our end) might be perilous. Would it not lead us to believe that we could simply coast by? Incidentally, we don't question the sternness of a coach or a doctor, but when God is serious we call it oppressive. The fact is the game is still on, the race has yet to be run, and if man gets too presumptuous, he, like the Hare, might  lose it altogether. Yet despite our divine Coach's severity, we know that he remains severe not because he is gloomy by nature,  but because if he is not serious for now, then we may never know the pleasure of that beatific victory parade; the place "where the mouths are filled with laughter... and the throngs are wild with joy." (Psalm 126:2 and Psalm 42:4).          


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