Catholics and the Cult of Fun
by Mark P. Shea
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The other day, as I was talking to a friend about the witness of the laity in the postmodern world, he remarked, "I'd recommend Jacques Maritain's books to you, but you may have trouble getting hold of some of his work." "Why?" I asked. "Because he's been bought out by Barney."
"Barney the Dinosaurl" "Himself!" said my friend. "Apparently, the corporation that owns Barney snapped up the publishing house that owns the works of Maritain. I've heard some of his stuff may be out of print now."
Through my head danced visions of a gray-haired French lay theologian plucked off a Porta-Potty seat and devoured by the Big Purple Friend of Children. "I love you [crunch], you love me [gulp] . . ."
But it also got me thinking. As Maritain himself would have insisted, such odd collisions of theology and culture are precisely what we lay Catholics must contend with if we are to bear witness in the postmodern world. One of the most serious problems we have to learn to confront is the Cult of Fun.
What is the Cult of Fun? It is the ruthless opposition to gravitas, a hardcore commitment to comfort and "good times" rather than to self-sacrifice for the weak, the disquieting, the poor, and the demanding. It is a kind of sloth, an avoidance of the hard stuff of life. Its summum bonum is pleasure; its highest ethical standard, niceness; its most profound proverb, "Lighten up!"; and its mortal enemy, the cross of Jesus Christ.
The devotee of the Cult of Fun practices a strict regimen of petty pleasures and avoidance of ultimates. Americans worship at this shrine more than any other nation on earth, while simultaneously feeling themselves to be the most adult and sophisticated people in history. Once, I heard a musician speaking to an American audience about the music of Brazil and extolling it because it "can address subjects which are taboo on American radio." The audience (this was an NPR broadcast) sniggered knowingly—as only apostate Puritans can. "Those hot-blooded Latins can really talk dirty," was the subtext of their laughter. But the musician corrected them. "Oh no! I don't mean sex is taboo in America. That's all you people talk about. I mean death, suffering, poverty, beauty, and eternity." The audience fell uncomfortably silent. We're Americans. We don't talk about those things.
What do we do instead? We have Fun. Thousands of hours, billions of kilowatts, zillions of gallons of gas worth of pure, relentless, grueling Fun. For the devotee of the Cult, nothing is more important: Fun, or at least something Not Serious, must be occurring constantly. Hence the popularity of television. Here is a box that, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, pours into our heads a kaleidoscope of inconsequent and inane gabble to assure us that life is Fun and nothing serious is going on here. Liberal idealists cling pathetically to the notion that serious (i.e., public) TV can tame the titanic heap of trash that is the daily output of the tube. But they are delusional. Thirty years ago, "serious TV" could cover a presidential debate, and the candidates could talk about serious things in a sensible way. No more. The tube demands that candidates now chatter brainless laugh lines the way Mr. Ed did back in '62. The horse, so far from being tamed, now rides us.
Our culture's worship at the altar of Fun carries major consequences for those who aim to bear witness to the Catholic faith, for the Catholic faith offers reality, the heart of which is joy, while the Cult of Fun offers only flash, distraction, sensation, and glamour, the heart of which is sadness. In the 60s and 70s the Cult of Fun was a powerful juggernaut with little to slow it down. That was, as a man I know put it, "before all the big diseases hit." Since that time AIDS, STDs, social imbecility, nihilism, despair, and the disastrous collapse of the family— with the attendant rise of feral youth, crime, and other social calamities— have begun to throw a different light on the Baby Boomer appetite for unlimited Fun. In addition, the invincible boomers have begun to discover another eternal verity: age. This has thrown sand in their machinery of Fun and made even that narcissistic gaggle of self-deifiers take stock.
As well they should, for the Generation X they have birthed (the ones who survived the Boomer commitment to abortion as a principal means of assuring their constitutional right to unlimited sexual Fun) have learned from their elders the important lesson that inconvenient people, aging parents as much as unwanted children, are best dealt with by lethal injection. Thus we see the increasingly embittered Generation X embracing the idea that the way to preserve the household idol of Fun—which Morn and Dad, as one of the few lasting legacies of their generation, passed on to them before they divorced—is to off Mom and Dad via physician-assisted suicide when the old goats get too feeble to change the Beatles CD. "Mom and Dad would want it that way," they say. After all, what's the use of living if, in the words of Kurt Cobain, "Life just isn't 100 percent fun anymore"? Better the old man and old lady die and get out of the way than that the rising generation's chance for Fun be impinged. In this way the high priests of the Cult of Fun become, as our culture is rapidly becoming, Hitler wearing Mickey Mouse ears, sacrificing the un-Fun to Bacchus and his consort, Euthanasia.
To this ghastly amusement park swept bare and empty, the Catholic faith, alone in our postmodern world, has a reply. It is the reply of sanity to mere feeling, of hope to mere progress, of love and joy to mere Fun.
The Cult of Fun holds as dogma that feelings are trumps. To any assertion of truth, the ready answer of our culture is, "That's true for you but not for me." This is thought by many to be an appeal to "reason" over against the "despotic" Christian call for faith in the unseen God. "If you need something to believe in," says our culture, "believe in yourself"—anything rather than be "ordered around" by a transcendent God.
The idea at work here is that something is true if it feels true, but not if it is a fact. Feelings are internal to me, and I am the source and center of all that is, but facts are external and therefore "imposed." One believes or disbelieves in everything from God to golf merely as a matter of taste, If God feels true to me, then he exists. If not, then my feelings have abolished him as easily as a flyswatter abolishes a fly. The problem is that it is feelings, not God, that die like flies. A Cult—and a culture—that bases its existence on feelings may just as well base its existence on a weathervane, a light breeze, or a cloud formation. Clouds are not notable for their ability to withstand the assaults of tyrants who, believing in themselves rather than God, decide to muster an army and invade Poland, erect a gulag, or slaughter whole populations in killing fields, cultural revolutions, great leaps forward, show trials, and collectivizations.
Over against such madness, the Church proposes for our belief a God who does not change and to whom we are conformed, rather than a vague evolutionary ideal which always thinks our feelings are really neat. Such a God, whose splendor is precisely the "splendor of truth," is a God who, far from being either a chimera of piety or a metaphysical tyrant, is in fact solidity, health, normalcy, and freedom. In the words of the old Thomists such as Maritain, he cannot be moved, and therefore he can move us to a place of sanity in our thinking which is not blown about by every feeling or obsession. He is sanity.
The next thing the Catholic faith can offer to our postmodern world is hope instead of "progress." A moment ago I mentioned that many still speak of trust in oneself as more reasonable than faith in an unseen God. This idea is not new. In fact, it is old hat, having been most enthusiastically promoted over two centuries ago by Enlightenment rationalists who classified themselves as committed to "brute fact" and reason. For them, the awareness that the physical universe operated according to certain laws seemed, mysteriously enough, overwhelming proof that there was no Lawmaker. Instead, they came to an unshakable faith in science and the power of human reason to conquer all. This profound faith in reason has percolated down to the present day. Among its central dogmas is belief in the coming great rosy dawn of an enlightened humanity that lives purely by reason and not by faith, which invariably is described by them as "superstition." This Gospel According to Voltaire and H. G. Wells has had many modern apostles, perhaps none more influential than St. Gene Roddenberry.
The irony is that, just as it has achieved its most widespread, popular proclamation in our culture, faith in reason is now being laughed to scorn, not by Catholics, who have never denied the validity of human reason, but by atheists in the academy such as Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, who have finally figured out what the Church has been insisting upon since the Enlightenment: The validity of human reason is itself dependent upon the mystical dogma that there are such things as truth and a human person, made in the image of God and able to apprehend that truth. Such people, though, rather than returning to the faith, choose to follow an anti-logic: They deny the validity of reason; it is just one more "superstition." Reason, which the enlightened naturalists trusted in to carry them to the great rosy dawn, has instead "progressed" to a denial of the foundations of reason itself. If human beings are accidental collisions of molecules, we cannot suppose that our capacity to reason is anything other than accidental. As J. B. S. Haldane observed long ago, if our thoughts are solely the result of chance collisions of molecules in our brains, we have no reason to suppose our thoughts are valid and no reason to suppose our brains to be made of molecules. Worship of reason has led to the denial of reason.
How could devotion to reason come to such an absurd pass? Because such an ideology looks only to creatures such as science, power, race, class, gender or Fun for its final hope. The creation, as Paul makes clear, has been subjected to futility (Rom. 8:20). If you look there for hope while rejecting the supernatural Creator, you place yourself in the position of a person energetically sawing off the branch he is sitting on. As the Catholic faith makes clear, we are made, not so much for the future as for eternity, for something completely outside time altogether—for God. This does not mean that reason is worthless nor that any of the creatures we love are bad. Indeed, one of the ironies of the present situation is that Catholics, who defended faith two hundred years ago against fanatical rationalists, now defend reason against fanatical irrationalists. But we do so with the clear awareness that mere reason, like all God's good critters, is limited. It can point you to God, but it can't unite you with him—and it certainly can't replace him.
This creaturely limitation is especially true of the idol of Fun, perhaps the most tepid and depressing pseudo-god in our pantheon. But Fun's loss is the Christian's gain. The very tawdriness of the Cult of Fun makes it much easier for the Catholic faith to speak loudly, clearly, and attractively to the postmodern world. The Cult of Fun is a Twinkie compared to the great feast of the Lamb; it is a ditzy gum-chewing chick in a bowling jacket compared to our long-lost and deepest love; it is Bee Gees tunes on a tinny transistor compared to trumpets and angels and the sound of many waters—because the Catholic faith offers us the Love that made the worlds.
"But that sounds so serious" says the devotee of Fun. "What good is attending to all this cosmic junk if I can't have my funnies?" To which the faith replies, "It certainly is serious! But it is not sad or dull." As G. K. Chesterton observed long ago, the opposite of funny is not serious; the opposite of funny is "not funny." Heaven, for which we are made and to which Christ calls us, will have all that the Cult of Fun promises but doesn't deliver. Heaven is joy, and joy is, as C. S. Lewis says, the serious business of heaven. Fun is just a paper-thin shaving from the top of the great cake at the wedding feast of the Lamb. That cake is, in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien, "joy, joy poignant as grief, beyond the walls of the world."
Such a joy is what makes martyrs saints and saints martyrs. It is worth dying for, while the Cult of Fun is barely worth living for. It is not for Nintendo and niceness that people throw away their lives like poems over a waterfall. It is for the joy that comes from the one Love. It is not for a vague preacher who taught "Niceness is Nice" that men and women, during twenty centuries, have gone willingly to hunger, to suffer, to struggle, to rejoice, and to die. It is for an Incarnate God who took us very seriously indeed, seriously enough to suffer death on a cross and to rise again to everlasting joy. All this is the stuff of real life, something that the disposable Styrofoam Cult of Fun, with its Twinkies and trash, cannot begin to give—yet something we, despite our timidity, hunger and thirst for with our deepest being.
This little meditation began with the whimsical image of a theologian gobbled up by a big purple dinosaur. One of the central images of the hook of Revelation is a more disturbing picture: Christ nearly devoured by the "huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan" (Rev 12:9). The dragon, please note, does not succeed, so he comes down to earth "in great fury, for he knows he has but a short time" (Rev. 12:12), and he occupies himself with, among other things, creating the Cult of Fun. Starved himself, he starves its devotees by convincing them that man lives on bread alone. He teaches these prisoners to look no further than their next meal and so leaves them famished, for you can never get enough of what you don't really want. But in God's mysterious purposes, the Church has (text missing in original) ured into the Body and been given, and is called to give, the Bread that is trans-hg- Blood of Christ. It is this Bread for which we were made and which was prepared for us since the foundation of the world. It is this Bread for which the prisoners of the Cult of Fun hunger. It is this Bread of Life and this Cup of Gladness which are the source and summit of the joy that is vastly more than Fun. That is why the substance of the Catholic gospel is "Taste and see."
It is also why we, as lay Catholics, are called (as Maritain was) to bear witness to the splendor of truth, not merely with our words but with our whole lives. 'I here is a queer intuition of truth in the grotesque image that began this essay. The devotee of the Cult of Fun will be tasting your life and mine to see whether we savor of joy.
If we do not, he will return to the Egyptian leeks and onions offered in the Temple of Fun. But if we live in the joy of God, and if God lives in us, then the devotee of Fun will be drawn to the Lord of joy, for joy is the infallible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Thus, and not otherwise, shall the prophecy of Isaiah he fulfilled and another soul hear Christ saying, "Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare" (Isa. 55:2).
• Mark P. Shea is the author of By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition. He lives in Washington State. © This Rock, Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177, (619) 541-1131.
© This Rock, Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177, (619) 541-1131.
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