Catholics must engage the arts, not only political activism, to become relevant in culture
Three and a half years ago, former National Endowment of the Arts chairman Dana Gioia wrote an essay about the state of Catholic literature. He did not offer a very positive outlook.
“What absorbs the Catholic intellectual media is politics, conducted mostly in secular terms—a dreary battle of right versus left for the soul of the American Church.”
Sound familiar? Gioia, one of the few openly Catholic (or Christian, for that matter) poets and literary critics to have achieved recent public acclaim, asserts that the roots of the cultural retreat many American Christians find themselves in is not so much the result of losing politically, but losing artistically. If politics is downstream from culture, as the late Andrew Breitbart used to say, then Catholic writers, artists, and filmmakers seem to have been blocked by a dam.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Gioia’s assessment, no doubt in part to a wave of literature and events that have left many of us asking “what now” when it comes to living in a “post-Christian” society.
Rob Dreher, in his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, argues for a local approach, one that engages less in familiar morality issues (like the transgender debate or abortion) and more on building local communities dedicated “charity, culture building, and conversion.”
The idea is to construct a leaner, stronger, and more charitable Church, one that embodies the call of Christ to serve the poor and vulnerable while still protecting its core moral beliefs among the faithful. It is, in many ways, theologically sound in how it instructs us to interact with the proverbial Caesar.
But it’s not, as Gioia writes, “the primary means by which most people experience, accept, or reject the faith.”
That way is through beauty, something that Archbishop Chaput discusses in his recent book, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.
“I really think that truth survives in a very confusing world and beauty calls us to embrace the truth of these experiences,” Chaput said in a recent interview. “Despite the ugliness of the world, the world is still a very beautiful place.”
It’s that combination of ugliness and beauty which forms the basis for much of what “Catholic” writing was 75 years ago. Look no further than Evalyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to see characters struggling to find meaning or love in their lives, holding to doubt yet gradually accepting the idea of surrendering themselves to a higher power. These are characters who some might find, from a purely moral position, contemptible. Yet in presenting them as authentic human beings, ones who can’t escape a connection to both place and their pasts, authors like Waugh render a vision of why God, and religion, matter.
It’s obviously a vision many question, if not reject, today. And while political and philosophical arguments have and continue to answer these questions, they can only address them when individuals make an effort to seek out the Church’s answers. And in a cultural establishment, which, as Gioia writes, “views faithful Catholics with suspicion, disdain, or condescension,” few people desire to go that deep.
I was reminded of this after reading Andrew Sullivan’s take on intersectionality in New York Magazine. Comparing intersectionality (a sort of Michael Foucault inspired, neo-Marxist theory obsessed with oppression and power structures) to a dogmatic religion, Sullivan underscores how difficult it is to reach and dialogue with people who will call you a bigot, homophobe, and, lest we forget, “literally Hitler,” at the suggestion of topics like absolute truth, morality, and the right to life.
This is why art can be so powerful—it can transform and it can reach the minds of those who entrench themselves amidst the noise of partisan politics, which, for what’s it’s worth, haven’t become any more civil with the secularization of both major parties.
We often hear that the culture war has been lost. I disagree. “Times are always bad. Culture is always in trouble. The barbarian is always at the gate,” writes Gioia. The truth is that Catholic artists, whether they be writers, artists, filmmakers, or musicians, have the same opportunity to bring religious insights to the world as they had when Flannery O’Connor or Evelyn Waugh were writing. Their challenge is study their craft and to understand that evangelism, and ultimately word-view formation, is not always done in overt terms. And our challenge is to support them.
No, the conditions are not ideal. They will never be. What matters for Christians is to accept that the longing for hope, overcoming brokenness, and experiencing of a world which can be “comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent,” transcend politics or candidates. These things are still important, but as long as we place single issues over the chance to reach out and emotionally stir individuals to explore what faith is, then we’re bound to keep doing it wrong.