An Alternative American Culture I

Mental pictures can help in illustrating an important point. The reader will excuse me, I hope, if I begin with a mental picture that is not the most pleasant. I should say at the outset that there is a purpose to this exercise, and it is not merely for me to go on a pointless jeremiad. What we’re driving at here has everything to do with a healthy and vibrant social life where Christ actually reigns as King.

We will consider a modern barbarian. In this case, he is a “teenager” (a word, significantly, that did not enter our vocabulary until the decadent Roaring Twenties, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary). For didactic purposes, we are now considering him under only one aspect of his existence – his diet. Besides his “teenager” attitude à la a prime-time-TV-sitcom brat, the following attributes and habits mark his character:

  • He does not know what a family meal is.
  • He thinks that McDonald’s constitutes “good food,” as contrasted with his normal fare of Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.
  • When he feels run down (which is frequent), he energizes himself with a Rock Star, Monster, Red Bull, or, the old standby, Jolt Cola. The mega doses of caffeine and taurine these high octane energy drinks provide help to offset the lows he experiences in his sugar crashes.
  • He eats as much as he wants as often as he wants when he wants with no restraint just as this sentence has no punctuation (…)
  • Cutlery is not only a word unknown to him, but also an unfamiliar concept. (You don’t need it at McDonald’s, right?)
  • Because of his diet, he is overweight, lethargic, depressed, anxious, peevish, and acne-ridden.

Now, perhaps our “teenager” is this way because he is from a broken home, and fell through the cracks. Perhaps the explanation is pure parental neglect. Perhaps he learned these habits from his parents, who eat the same way. It matters little. What does matter is that junior is a dietary barbarian who is neither very happy nor very healthy.

Should he one day realize – because of the counsel of a doctor, friend, responsible older person, etc. – that he’s killing himself, he will have to make some major adjustments to reverse a lifetime of bad habits. He will have to learn how to use cutlery (as mystifying to him as chopsticks may be to you and me). He will have to habituate himself to eating decent food, first by knowing what it is, and second by figuring out how to avail himself of it (since it is not available at McDonald’s). He will have to learn that eating is not something done when we “get the munchies,” but at fixed intervals determined by civilized convention. In short, he will have to rid himself of vices (bad habits) and acquire virtues (good habits). This will be difficult, and he will probably undergo some failures, such as midnight raids to the McDonald’s drive-through window and Twinkie binges that give him a hangover the next day. Eventually, though, being of hearty good will, our barbarian learns to eat right. He even enjoys the taste of farm-fresh milk and produce from a nearby farmers’ market. He can’t help thinking, though, that he’s been robbed by the system.

It’s the Culture. The word picture we have just painted includes only one aspect of this fellow’s life – a particularly ugly one, but only one. What constitutes bad health physically in our dietary barbarian corresponds to serious psycho-spiritual sicknesses in the larger genus of which he is a species: the cultural barbarian. This fellow, in addition to the above, starves himself on the jejune diet of contemporary American popular culture, his cultural ambit including the following:

  • He can quote copious passages from “SpongeBob,” but doesn’t know anything about Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Virgil, J.R.R. Tolkein, or even Mark Twain.
  • In fact, he cannot read a book with relish or enjoyment. Television better suits him, as do aimless hours of mentally numbing video games and surfing for random idiocy on YouTube.
  • He thinks the refuse on most of the FM band is actually music worthy of the name.
  • Elevated ideas – in religion, language, philosophy, aesthetics, or any other human pursuit – escape him utterly.
  • His cultural points of reference include Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, or, if we’re lucky, a “classic” such as the Three Stooges. And don’t forget SpongeBob SquarePants!
  • Because of the tastes he has cultivated (or, more properly, uncultivated, as cultivation implies wheat rather than chaff), he does not understand higher or better things. He merely mocks them, in the irreverent fashion of one of his idols on Saturday Night Live – just as our dietary barbarian, as he gorges himself on Ho-Hos, would mock someone who uses cloth napkins and silverware.

Some questions come to mind when we consider this fellow. Is he prepared to be “tomorrow’s leader,” as the posters in the hall of his public school try to tell him he is soon to be? What happens to his wife and children if he ever finds himself with those awkward social conventions? When he comes to vote (which means that he is the government – scary!), what will inform his decisions? Sure, he has opinions – and can air them pugnaciously, loudly, and inarticulately on Oprah or on talk radio – but what is there of actual thought behind his opinions?

The prospects are frightening, for himself, for his family, and for the nation.

What about Grace? Some pious folk will suggest that if this man is Catholic, if he avails himself of the means of grace through prayer and the sacraments, then he can overcome anything. True enough, but, excepting for miraculous interventions and rare prodigies, grace does not supplement for nature; it rather builds on nature. There is a difference. If our dietary barbarian converts to Catholicism, he can avail himself of grace to acquire virtues, but acquire them he must. His cooperation with grace will necessarily entail uprooting those gluttonous and slothful habits he had.1 In the cultural barbarian, whose affections are directed to the deranged anti-culture of modern American TV, Rock and Roll, and other fatuous entertainments, grace has a very shaky foundation to build upon.

Snobbery… Moi? Some may find all this talk about culture to be a promotion of snobbery. Not at all. I should make it plain that I am not promoting the “high-brow” or “long-hair” as synonymous with the good and the moral. We can speak of good culture and bad culture, but we can also distinguish between high culture and low culture. The two divisions are not synonymous; they overlap. High culture and low culture can both be good – and both can be bad. Old time American music (low culture) is generally good and wholesome, and so is Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcellae (high culture). The band, “Iron Maiden,” (low culture) is bad, but so is Igor Stravinsky’s prurient Rite of Spring (high culture), which is a skillfully refined, but highly debauched, orchestral eroticism.

The history of civilization presents us with classes and a generally corresponding set of high and low (and possibly middle) culture. One could probably make the argument that without a robust low culture (e.g., the popular ditties Mozart would have heard on the streets), there could not be an authentic high culture (e.g., Mozart’s Symphony 25). In a Christian culture, both are sanctified, while in an anti-Christian culture, both are debased. There can also be elements of a non-Christian culture that are good, and that dispose such a culture toward Catholicity.

A Lesson from Saint Gregory the Great. In the Middle Ages, England possessed the magnificent title of “Mary’s Dowry.” It was not always that way. Aside from a handful of Celtic Christians (probably descendants of those evangelized by Saint Joseph of Arimathea who, tradition has it, went to Albion), what the Roman Benedictine missionaries with Saint Augustine found when they were sent there at the turn of the seventh century was a whole lot of paganism. Saint Augustine of Canterbury wrote to Pope Saint Gregory the Great, reporting on his mission and asking for guidance. The answer received is worthy to be read in more than a few words. In Saint Gregory’s “The Letter to Mellitus” of 601, we read this:

“When Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, after mature deliberation on the affairs of the English, determined upon, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples – let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts and, knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.”

Keep the temples, destroy the idols. Whatever is good, keep and transform to a holy purpose; whatever is bad, destroy. That is a program for Christening a nation, or, if you will, baptizing a culture.

Some non-Christian cultures have provided numerous elements of truth and virtue that could be built upon in that people’s evangelization. The Greek and Roman world provide copious examples. Outside of Christendom, we can instance the Asiatic reverence for elders. Even Confucianism, which is not a religion, but a philosophy, impressed the Jesuit missionaries very much. Some of them thought they could “baptize” it just as Saint Thomas had “baptized” the pagan Aristotle. Further, the Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese had as part of their culture elements which a Western Christian would recognize as chivalric, including the code of the Samurai. Yes, it was pagan; and yes, it enshrined a mixture of vice and virtue, but Saint Paul Miki was not the only Catholic Samurai. Such Christian men were as noble as any medieval Christian Knight from Europe. The history of evangelization is filled with such things.

Good culture is a natural phenomenon. Christian culture is the result of good culture being integrated with, and informed by, supernatural principles derived from revelation. We can use an analogy from an individual: A “good man” can be so without the having a supernatural dimension to his life, but he becomes a “holy man” only when sanctifying grace and the theological virtues are added to his nature. I hasten to add that, because of original sin, it is very hard to be good. Without grace, natural virtue is possible, but it is neither very common nor sufficient for salvation.

Now, we have called this piece, “An Alternative American Culture,” yet we have not mentioned American culture very much. What is this “alternative” of which we speak? In a subsequent issue, we will put down some specifics regarding good American cultural elements, aspects of Americana compatible with Catholicity. If we are to convert this nation we love, we ought to be able to find what in its culture are the “temples” to be kept and embellished with Catholic virtues as we work to destroy its idols.

1. Saint Paul’s converts had to do a lot in this regard; see I Cor. 6:11 and Eph 5:8.