The attraction and danger of anti-modern religion
Preparations for a remote recorded mass, without bells or smells, last month at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Grosse-Ãle, Michigan.
Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images
Reading of Tara Isabella Burton’s explanatory essay in New York Times About the underground millennial movement she calls âstrange Christianity,â this old baby boomer felt a strong sense of dÃ©jÃ vu. In another era of cultural upheaval, in the early 1970s, I was removed from militant atheism (itself raised by a conservative evangelical upbringing) by exposing myself to the same traditional Christian aesthetic celebrated by Burton as an antidote. to a “crisis of modernity and liberal-capitalist faith in individualism.”
Once again, young people recognize that Christianity can be counter-cultural rather than a means of giving divine sanction to mainstream secular society. And the artistic, musical, and worship practices associated with premodern Christianity are alien enough to secular sensibilities that they can feel âpunkâ and a refuge from the failed self-confidence of modern life so evident in a global pandemic.
Like punk culture itself, the world of traditional Christian aesthetics can turn into something less exotic once you’ve been immersed in it for a while. Burton speaks of people in quarantine finding “transcendence” and comfort in virtually watching priests celebrate a Latin mass. This is appropriate: the essence of the pre-Vatican II Mass was its non-participatory character; it was something that the faithful looked upon mostly and was often celebrated more for the benefit of the dead – whose bequests funded the Western Church for centuries – than for the living. The liturgical reforms of Vatican II abolished the Latin Mass and replaced (in the United States, anyway) sentimental folk music and poorly arranged Protestant hymns, but also made the Mass a truly communal experience.
Likewise, Burton mentions the pleasures of the âliturgically elaborate episcopal riteâ I Eucharist, which I loved when I was an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian. It was only gradually that I realized that despite all its beautifully archaic language, Rite I was less “Catholic” than modern Rite II and was loaded with signs of its principal author Thomas Cranmer’s desire to displace the Church. from England to what his time considered “modern” and “individualistic” worship practices. “Traditional” or “old” does not necessarily mean more faithful to the kind of rigorous or meaningful religion that “strange Christians” seek.
There is no doubt that for contemporary millennials, the usages of premodern Christianity can become a means of rebelling against liberal relativist culture and its distant cousin, the capitalist economy. But if the revolt against modernity is taken seriously, you cannot choose like those “Cafeteria Catholics” that tradpunks probably despise. For every Latin mass lover who sees pre-capitalist Christianity as an inspiration for left-wing solidarity with workers and immigrants, there is someone who just as genuinely finds refuge in pre-Enlightenment attitudes towards women. , homosexuality, class privileges and the fate of inferior races. . Some strange Christians may be Christian socialists, but others are undoubtedly protofascists – both seeing capitalism as the work of the devil.
The controversial conservative Rod Dreher, quoted in detail by Burton, is perhaps best known for promoting the “Benedict Option,” whereby Orthodox Christians are encouraged to withdraw from culture wars and live righteously in their own enclaves. . Like others in Burton’s world, Dreher found contemporary expressions of faith lacking:
âAs a teenager in the 1980s, I thought Christianity was either boring middle class praying or hellish Pentecostal Jimmy Swaggart,â Mr. Dreher told me. “None of them spoke to me.”
Dreher converted to Roman Catholicism and later Eastern Orthodoxy, at a considerable distance from most religious who share his political and cultural predilections. But you get the feeling that he would descend from the top of the mountain in the blink of an eye to celebrate an illiberal political regime that made his idea of ââliving by God the norm.
Anyone who aspires to “transcend” the tedious and Philistine comforts of liberal individualism, it seems, is welcome among the strange Christians, who find in the rites and dogmas of the old school a faith more “demanding” than that offered by the pale belief systems of their fellow human beings. citizens. But like all embodied religion, Christianity requires a constant tension between transcendence and immanence – the divine and the human, reconciled in Christ. It means living in the real liberal capitalist America, which is no more wicked than the medieval principalities with which the premodern church lived intimately and uncomfortably. I don’t see much of a future for some of the coalitions the Weird Christians are apparently trying to build:
Leah Libresco Sargeant, a Catholic convert and writer who describes her views as roughly in line with those of the American Solidarity Party, which associates a focus on economic and social justice with opposition to abortion, to capital punishment and euthanasia, rejects capitalist notions of human freedom. .
In my own boomer development, I eventually came to see a religious life based primarily on the beauty of ancient and essentially non-living liturgical traditions as a kind of idolatry that represented, at best, an escape from true and sometimes demanding demands. aesthetically unsatisfactory to be a Christian. in an imperfect world. I have derived from Anglo-Catholicism – a 19th-century English reimagining of a 16th-century English religious compromise – to the simple American creed of the Disciples of Christ, who celebrate communion weekly but without the “bells and smells âwhich I still miss. We don’t necessarily treat the challenges of modern society better than others, but try to cherish America’s distinctive contribution to Christianity: pluralism which reserves for voluntary communities the right to have very divergent notions about how to live with oneself and with one another. Dogmatists are offended by it, and aesthetes find it boring, and it does not offer the revealed and transcendent truth to many who struggle with a pandemic envy. But in the long history of Christianity, pluralism is perhaps the strangest idea of ââall.