Culture vs. religion
Mark Shea has a bee in his bonnet about an article in the City Journal. I suppose I might agree with him if the article he was responding to ever claimed that American conservatism *is* eternal. But the article is entirely about the culture we live in, not theology or soteriology, so necessarily it’s about temporal things, the things of the age, Augustine’s city of man, where virtues (albeit imperfect ones) can be found even from the Romans. We judge temporal things primarily by temporal standards, under prudence — not eternal ones, under judgment.
So considered *as cultural-political criticism,* Mr. Shea doesn’t lay a glove on the article. When he says “Try, seriously, to square the worldview of contempt which informs South Park with Catholic teaching,” he’s missing the point. The article makes it clear that South Park’s virtues are negative ones — it’s the enemy of the enemy. This is not exactly a friend, but in the world of politics, that’s close enough. In addition, you can only engage a culture (either politically or religiously) where it is, otherwise it tunes you out. Nostalgia-based condemnation of the age is not a serious stance, certainly culturally-speaking. In this ironic day and age, THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S ain’t gonna cut it. I remember as a boy hating Mickey Mouse because I thought it was too much like education and moral uplift, and there was something about Bugs Bunny’s insouciant poise that was more attractive. Mickey could have had imprimaturs out the wazoo, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me because I didn’t like him. Flannery O’Connor talked about saving your work first. One of John Paul’s greatest virtues is being the first mass-media pope, understanding that you engage people where they are, and if the world has a comic-book culture, then make a comic book out of your biography.
I’ve already written some of my own thoughts about South Park, and wish only to add that a new season of 8 episodes began last week and that there has to be good in any show where all the Gay Guys Who Dress Up The Breeder, or whatever it’s called, get killed. It’d be impossible to deny that the show has a tone of contempt, but there’s a gleeful quality to it that is equally impossible to miss and which makes the show a valuable satirical weapon for these times. I’d compare South Park to Camille Paglia — not orthodox, but friendly because it has all the right enemies to have in this day and age. I frankly wonder whether Mr. Shea, who repeatedly rails against TV as such, has seen very much of the show, of which he does not cite a single moment.
I’m also massively unconvinced by Mr. Shea’s implicit “a pox on both your houses” moral-equivalence stance toward politics. It strikes me as imprudent and makes the perfect the enemy of the good. American conservatism is definitely imperfect sub specie aeternitis, but Catholics and Christians can find much common ground and get a serious hearing without contempt for our very existence and the belief that we are the enemy as such — the “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” attitude. With conservatism, the spirit is willing, even if the flesh is sometimes weak; with liberalism, the spirit is in total league with the Enemy. *That* is what the culture war (on which Mr. Shea does brilliant service on the side of the angels) is all about; whether Christianity can inhabit the public space or whether progress is measured by how thoroughly it can be repudiated. There is an absolute difference here between the two dominant ideologies and parties, and Christians should not kid themselves about who their friends and enemies are.
If Tolkien really, truly intends “The Lord of the Rings” as some sort of global indictment of “Power,” then I feel vindicated in my aesthetic resistance to him — I was pretty tepid on the two movies and cannot comment on them as novels because I found them unreadable. It’d be good therefore to know, if that account is accurate, that they’re also pretty silly. A serious politics cannot begin with the notion that power is some evil Ring. It is all fine and good to say render unto Caesar, and that the regime doesn’t matter because the gates of hell shall not prevail, etc. But the Catholic Church has never taught political quietism, and frankly I’d rather see the Body in a friendly culture and polity than an unfriendly one, if I can affect the matter at all (and again, *that I can* is the unstated assumption of all political and cultural engagement). But maybe that’s just me. The question is not whether there shall be worldly power, but who shall wield it and for what ends — relatively good ones or relatively bad ones. Ones hostile to Christ or friendly to Him.
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