Thursday, March 29, 2007

Faith in the Suburbs

I thought about giving this post the title of "Love in the Ruins," but decided that would be exaggeration to those not familiar with the novel, and I'm not reviewing it now. However, Walker Percy (1916-1990) did make his home in Covington, Louisiana, a town only a stone's throw away from where I lived from middle school to college. In suburbia.

To quote Percy's novel (1971): "Our Catholic church has split into three pieces: 1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; 2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; 3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go. "

How I hate the suburbs. There are too many whites (sorry, but for me it’s true). It’s so ridiculously superficially Protestant. And where it’s not Protestantism in the shallows, it’s completely God-less. And yet it still manages to be conformist. The religion practiced in the suburbs is consumerism. If you are able to buy the newest SUV model from the most popular line, it is because God is blessing you. If you lose your job, you’re a sinner and God is punishing you. Convenience is sacred. Living in the suburbs (and adolescence) drove me into Catholic apologetics. How else to deal with the horror of a belief that people who suffer are accursed by God? Or that people who are living in poverty are simply not working hard enough? That’s some cold re-tooled Protestantism at work, and I say that from knowledge that the people I have encountered who have most strictly held that view are also Evangelicals.

Ah, the Evangelical Protestants. The teenagers would “fellowship” during the week, throwing pizza parties, eating Doritos, reading some Bible verses, and singing some awful Praise and Worship songs. I hate pop-inspired Praise and Worship songs, as should anyone who has any aesthetical taste. It’s a sugary derivation of white rock from the 60’s and 70’s, and I also hate white rock. As I quoted Balanchine below, I don’t think this is the way to “find” God. This is the “Me and God, My Buddy and Me” crowd, and I don’t know what God that is. (Or maybe it’s because they would then get in their really nice cars and drive away – what? “God has rewarded me by giving me an expensive car from my parents!”)

At Texas A&M, the Evangelical groups got together and celebrated this thing called “Resurrection Week” during Holy Week. Is it crass to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord before Easter Sunday, and to do so during a solemn week for Catholics? Could it be inappropriate to have a barbecue on Good Friday?

I’m building my little black ball of hate, because it reminds me that it makes complete sense why so many cradle Catholics who care about their faith and are stuck growing up in suburbia take refuge in Patristic studies and Newman, Gregorian chant and the Council of Trent. There isn’t much that is magical or fantastical about the suburbs, and even the fairy tales are watered down nowadays. It’s hard to see God in all things when every thing looks the same anyway, and in any suburb in the country. At least a young Catholic can try to have a “life of the mind,” a shelter from the depressing environment around him or her.

But there is also the power of art, and those who live in the suburbs have more access to it (at least through purchasing power) than most. Balanchine, flaws and all, was viewed as a demi-God by people not only because he was an artistic genius but because he had a philosophy on life that depended on self-abnegation to a higher vision, continuously, in the present, NOW! The audience could believe in a Higher Power when watching/experiencing his ballets not because he used overtly Christian themes (he really didn’t), but because of Balanchine’s devotion to beauty and the mystery of individual longing. His work is a reminder that it is the person and the experience melded in this moment that matters, that a person committed to the present is a person who can show the truth that belongs to eternity, because God can be experienced in each moment of our lives. We worship the living God Who seeks to transform us in every moment, not the god who is our pal, or the god who wants us to sing praise songs to him twice a week and do whatever else we want the rest of the time. As A.V. likes to say in his frequent sermons, the problem is us.

I don’t have a solution that would create a thriving Catholicism in suburbia – there’s probably not meant to be one there, if Catholicism is meant to thrive anywhere other than in the souls of believers. Perhaps I’m suspicious of traditionalist Catholics for the same reason I was suspicious of my Evangelical classmates – their outward behavior emphasizes the externals. I can only do whatever it is I do, in this moment, now, and pray to God for it to be something.

Postscript: In Love in the Ruins there is a device called the Qualitative Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer that measures the fallenness of the human soul: it is "the first caliper of the soul and the first hope of bridging the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man ever since the famous mathematician Descartes ripped the body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts his own house." It detects angelism and bestialism, and those who have a mixed angelism-bestialism strain are "ghosts with erections."


Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

I wonder if this post applies to me?

I grew up in the barrio, but it was a nice barrio: clean, hardly any crime, and very friendly. People were poor, but not that poor. People used drugs, but they kept them behind closed doors, and they weren't slinging on the corner....

We were Catholic, but with lots of laxity and exceptions. I remember we would always close and lock the doors and pretend we were not home when the Jehova's Witnesses came to the door. More recently, I had started debating then (filthy Arians!) to the point that I once almost thought that their Grand Poomba was going to hit me. (O my gosh, I was doing apologetics!!!)

The one saving grace was being by the countryside. Walk a few blocks, and that's where the fields started. You would see the cows grazing on the hills, and the distant mountains. That at least for me sparked my imagination, and to this day I can't look at mountains without thinking about God:

"Levavi oculos meos in montes unde veniet auxilium mihi.

Auxilium meum a Domino qui fecit caelum et terram"

"I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains...."

Perhaps it is the detachment from nature that makes the suburbs so disordered.

And they do have way too many gabachos (white people).

Albion Land said...

AV and AG,

Firstly, Arturo. I was fascinated by your note, in which you referred to gabachos as white people. In Spain, gabacho is a pejorative term for the French, who inhabit a not very popular nation to the north.

Secondly, to AG: I absolutely love your blog, and have linked it at The Continuum.

Thirdly, to AV and AG: Have you two ever actually met, or is this a virtual romance?

AG said...

albion land,

Welcome, and thank you for the compliment. If I ever ceased to be so lazy and egotistical (in complex combination), I would make a list of links, but alas.

As to myself and A.V., let's just say that it's more than cyber soap opera.