‘The Greatest That Ever Lived’ (On the Apotheosis of Michael Jackson)

Think of a civilization as a fruit. The interior of the fruit — its meat — consists of the ideas, principles and beliefs professed by the members of a society, and thence of the civilization of which that society is part. Throughout history until modern time, the ideas, principles and beliefs of all civilizations derived from religion. When societies in great parts of the world were Christian, notably in Europe and its overseas outposts, so was the civilization in those places. That is, men in those places lived according to the Christian ideas, principles and beliefs they professed.

When men live according to what they profess, they produce not only a society and civilization of a certain character, but also a singular culture. By culture is here meant standards of conduct, a code of etiquette, even a manner of worship, as well as art — music, poetry, painting, architecture, cooking and so on — that gives expression, that manifests, the culture. The culture may be likened to the skin of a fruit.

Apart from the skin itself often being very nutritious, like the interior meat, it is important because if it is gashed or torn, deadly bacteria can enter into the meat of the fruit and cause it to spoil and eventually rot altogether. The civilization dies. To be sure, if caught in time — if the members of a society are vigilant — spoilage can be arrested by cutting away a rotten spot and sealing the area.

The gashes and tears in a culture take the form of dangerous or positively bad works of art, careless manners, the sloppy or irreverent performance of religious rites (or their radical transformation). Sometimes the damage is not immediately detected, as when you don’t notice a piece of fruit is bruised until you get it home from the store. In culture it was like that, for example, with the kind of painting that came to be called Impressionist. It had its critics when some artists first started painting that way in the 19th century, but the severest of them could not imagine the abstract expressionism to which it would lead in the 20th. That development was extremely bad — a deep gash — for what was left of Christian culture.

Notice that we’re saying bad, not merely inferior. We speak thus because culture most of the time takes two forms: high culture and popular culture, and the popular is generally inferior — generally, but not always. More exactly, in some historical periods even popular culture will be of a high order and with the passage of time — as a civilization decays — what was once popular can become the very highest.

In literature, an example of that would be the plays of William Shakespeare. When they were first produced the level of Christian civilization itself and of its culture were so high, which is to say the generality of men were close enough actually to living according to the Christian ideas, principles and beliefs they professed, that the main audience for them were the ordinary working-class folks who thronged the ground at London’s Globe Theater. Today the great majority of persons would never dream of attending a performance of Hamlet or The Tempest. They think the works are beyond them. They are probably right. So the plays are mainly studied in universities, and then only by English majors.

It’s the same with music. All of it composed in the Baroque Era — the era of the Counter-Reformation — was popular, all written as background for what ordinary persons as well as nobles might do. There was music written as background for dancing, for processions, for worship, even for eating. Telemann, one of the principal composers of the era, wrote music expressly as background for dining and mealtime conversation. He called it Table Music. Today we go to concert halls to hear it.

There also comes to mind the Mass whose development in externals reached its apogee in the same era, the Baroque. At that time and right up to a few decades ago, it was according to its rubrics that peasants as well as great lords worshiped. Today it is known as Mass according to the extraordinary rite. We who prefer it are grateful that once again it is widely available, and should pray for the long life of the Pope who has done what he can to ensure we shall be able to keep it, but the vast majority of those still calling themselves Catholic obviously are perfectly content with Mass as it is “celebrated” on Sunday at most every suburban parish (excuse me, “worship community”) in the land. Why wouldn’t they be? The manner of worship at that Mass — Mass according to the ordinary rite — is of a piece with the rest of culture as they know it. It is suited to them, it is what they understand, what they are comfortable with, what they are bound to prefer.

This is what happens when men stop living according to what they say they believe — stop because (let’s be honest) they no longer believe. They wind up with a manner of worship become, well, entertainment — a Mass that offers them “something to do.” Yes, polls show most Americans still pay selective lip service to some Christian principles, but the Gallup people also told us more than twenty years ago that barely a third of U.S. Catholics still believed, at that time, in the Real Presence. (Of course even that number couldn’t care less about the political, economic and social ideas that derive from the Faith.) Consider other fundamental dogmas, like the Incarnation. We have all heard this from putative Catholics: A Palestinian workingman two thousand years ago was God? That doesn’t make sense. He may have become a great preacher and maybe even the holiest man who ever lived after He gave up carpentry, but God? There are folks in India who supposedly hold this or that man was, or is, God, or a god, but they probably don’t really believe that either. What rational person could?

How did we come to such unbelief? It was through the gash or tear made by certain books and plays associated with what was called, even at the time, the Enlightenment. Through that gash entered the poisonous notion that men may and even should live without reference to anything higher than themselves, which is to say, according to their own will instead of God’s. They would succeed where — according to the biblical fable — Adam and Eve failed. This notion — this false philosophy — is known as liberalism, which has attached to it other errors like rationalism and secularism, but it is not our subject here. What interests us is the thinning of the culture, the skin of the fruit of Christian civilization, that resulted from the awful gash of it.

The thinning is observable in a myriad of ways, but very notably in how high culture has become detached from the everyday life of ordinary persons. Instead of pictures worth our looking at decorating the walls of our homes (or being painted), they are relegated to museums. Instead of great novels being read (or written), the few who still read pre-order Dan Brown’s next book. Poetry, of course, is simply not part of most of our lives.

Neither is great music, not for most. Instead, what most persons listen to today, their heads buried in their iphones as they ride the subway to work, is so bad the inclination is to put it in quotation marks: “music”. It’s the kind of stuff that was performed by poor Michael Jackson.

Literally within an hour of the news of his death leaving the world with its collective mouth agape from shock, and with the cable news networks scrambling to get on air cultural commentators ready to tell the stunned public what to think about the “king of pop,” one heard that Jackson was a “genius” and that his music was “sublime”. Later, at a concert of her own, another of our day’s most illustrious performers of “music,” Madonna, would hail him as “one of the greatest artists the world has ever known.” That was nothing compared to what was heard at the funeral televised from L.A.’s Staples Center (if funeral is exactly the word for the event). We heard from there that Jackson quite simply was “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.”

The point? Mozart was a genius and Bach’s B-Minor Mass is sublime, not Jackson and his “music”. If you recognize that, the surmise here is that you have seldom felt more acutely how wide a gulf exists between you and most of society today, between you and what the society produces by way of culture, than during the days when America and much of the rest of the world was transfixed on something that meant nothing to you: the death of Michael Jackson.

If that was the case, there is a lesson to be drawn: It will take far more time, almost certainly far more than anyone now alive will live, and much more effort than can be undertaken by the few dedicated to it now, for the society to be brought again to the point that Christian culture flourishes. That is a way of saying, a work of conversion far vaster than was necessary when pagan Rome and later pagan Europe were made Christian, will be needed to bring men once again to Christian belief and to living according to it. After all, in ancient Rome and, say, 10th-century Scandinavia, our missionaries were evangelizing men who, in Rome’s case, would have kept Jackson locked in a brothel for customers with aberrant tastes and, in Scandinavia, would have thrown pieces of him to their dogs. In neither place was society sunk so low that he would be adulated. That is because the societies were at least pagan.

Three final thoughts: 1) It is to be hoped these lines have not reached anybody of the sort who might say, “I love all kinds of music, classical as well as Thriller. If they have, my response is this: You may imagine otherwise, you may fancy it really wouldn’t matter which recordings washed up on a desert island with you, but you don’t truly love any kind of music. You cannot. Your remark shows you don’t know enough. Go learn.

2) Jackson’s death served to bring to the forefront of one’s awareness, as seldom before, more than simply the divide that exists between oneself and most of the prevailing culture. It also brought to light facts about the culture one did not fully appreciate. For instance: The society may have banned cigarette-smoking in most places; indeed, smoking for many Americans may be the only remaining action seen as sinful. However, overdosing on legal, prescription drugs has now become the second-leading cause of accidental death in the United States. What may be inferred from that fact? Clearly, in the lifetime of anybody now over forty, we have gone from being a society where, in a moment of relaxation, a man might light a cigarette (and drink a glass of beer) to one where a majority are all the time on some kind of dope, legal as well as illegal. No wonder all those persons with their heads in their iphones look stupified.

3) It is foolish to think, as some may be tempted, that if the culture declined as rapidly as ours has, it is proof the society can be changed, can be turned around, sooner than I’ve said here. That is not how reality works. Destruction takes but a moment. Building takes much longer. Consider the Mass of which we spoke earlier. It took a thousand years for the liturgy to develop to that point in the Baroque where it was codified by the Council of Trent. All of that millennial work was undone in a single generation. The same can be said, more or less, for literature, for schooling (from education to job-training), for architecture (from the humane to a “machine for living”), for manners (from cultivated to coarse), for music to become “music,” even for warfare (from the immorality of unprovoked aggression to “anticipatory self-defense”). This downward spiral to bottom — not that we necessarily have reached that point yet — took less than the lifetime of my mother-in-law, who will be 103 in October.

None of it is going to be as quickly and easily turned around. And don’t count on God doing the job for us, no matter how hard some pray. If we pray, He will certainly lend us help, mainly in the form of fortitude (provided we discipline ourselves) and wisdom (if we seek it), but if He was ever inclined suddenly to stop using men as His instruments for the unfolding of history as He has designed it, He would surely have done so in some age when there were a lot more saints around than we see today when it is a Michael Jackson who commands the world’s adulation.