Do you remember that stylish film The Matrix? The hero, Neo Anderson, exists in a dull, conformist, monotone and monochrome world. Then he wakes up and is “born again” and enters the world of adventure and risk which is the real world.
What I find curious about modern American Catholicism is that it is similarly monotone and monochrome. The bland, egalitarian architecture, the shallow show-biz type music, the anodyne homilies and the assumption that the Christian religion is about being nice people and making the world a better place reminds me of Neo’s boring world.
The paradox is that as our popular culture has become increasingly sensual, opulent and materialistic, our religion has become more barren, dumbed down and bland. This tendency for everything in church to be big and bland is not just that we’re trying to do religion on the cheap. We’re doing it on the cheap because there is a creeping Manicheanism in the church.
Manicheanism is the belief that the physical world is sinful. Our bodies are dirty and sinful. Sex is always dirty and sinful. Wealth is dirty and sinful. The material world is dirty and sinful. Manichee taught that we must rise above the physical and become spiritual. Underlying much of American Catholicism is this same belief–a kind of strange, below the radar Puritanism.
We’re guilty of a subtle and weird form of hypocrisy. We load up our lives with as many rich and lush experiences as possible. Our homes are palaces. Our vacations are luxurious outlays of self indulgence. We spoil our kids, we spoil ourselves. The average suburban American middle class person eats and lives at a level of luxury and opulence a Roman emperor would be impressed with, but when it comes to religion we do it on the cheap.
I don’t think this is simply because we are ungenerous, but because we really do think that somehow our religion is the place where we “do austerity” for an hour every week because we have this idea that we should all be poor Franciscans, and that the Catholic religion is otherworldly and poor and that being Catholic means we should be against all that expensive stuff and against pleasure and so the church should be like a bare auditorium–just a place to meet in before we go out into the world.
So, on the one hand, we live like princes, but expect the Prince of Peace to live like a pauper. We distrust the physical aspect of our religion, and this is evidenced not just by the cheap, barren architecture, but also by the sentimental, tacky music, the polyester vestments, the fake electric candles and the felt banners with cliched slogans.