An Unsatisfying Evening

There’s nothing like beginning an evening discussion of contemporary love and sexuality by scandalizing the audience.

Last evening’s presentation at the Catholic Information Center here in Washington with author Christopher West began with a bit of a bombshell.  In announcing some of the highlights from the extensive curriculum vitae of the event’s moderator, Katherine Lopez of National Review Online, it was announced that, “She’s also written for Playboy.”  If you have ever read KLo then you know why this caused whoops laughter among all present, including Miss Lopez herself, who clarified that in fact she had been quoted negatively by that publication, rather than having written for it.

In many ways if it were not for purveyors of personal emptiness like Hugh Heffner, then one might argue that Christopher West’s new book, “Fill These Hearts:  God, Sex, and the Universal Longing” would not have been written.   For Heffner, and others like him, made what used to be considered socially unacceptable material into the ordinary and commonplace.  Images and ideas which led men away from their wives and families to encourage promiscuity, adultery, and so on, became part of the furniture in the modern American home.  And we can see the results of that invasion of the family unit all around us, whether we look at the levels of promiscuity, abortion, cohabitation, and so on, which at one time would have been considered not only unacceptable, but simply unimaginable in a civilized society.

As he pointed out during the discussion, West notes that culture likes to turn what today is referred to as eroticism – though it has really nothing to do with the concept of “eros” –  into entertainment.  West’s underlying argument last evening was that man is hungry for something in his heart which contemporary society promises to satisfy, but ultimately cannot deliver.  For although we are hungry, we are filling ourselves with junk food rather than nutrition.  As a result, by living on such a diet we are slowly but surely killing ourselves, not unlike Morgan Spurlock in the documentary “Super Size Me”.

Good stuff, no doubt – but the problem was that while last night’s discussion certainly had its good moments, it was not for me.

Given that the average age of the audience was about 20, and it has been quite a long time since I was that age, perhaps I should simply accept the fact that I am now middle-aged and always have been, even when I was about ten years old.  It is all very well to reference popular culture in order to get people interested in what you have to say, although referring Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones songs with such a comparatively young audience might not necessarily have been the best way to go.  At times the presentation felt like a retreat for high school seniors, including asking us to sing along to the somewhat insipid, 1970’s suburban parish communion hymn, “Gift Of Finest Wheat”, to make the point that the Eucharist satisfies the hungry heart.

Mr. West then went on to reference Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, noting that even secular art can become a sacred experience.  That is certainly the case, though it must be approached with caution.  Someone with a good foundation in the faith and the intellectual maturity to engage with someone directly opposed to the Church, such as with those creating the more egregious examples of human depravity celebrated in the contemporary film world, may emerge from the battle relatively unscathed.  Most of us however, cannot do so, and to think that we are invincible in such instances is to court folly.

At one particularly wince-worthy point in the evening Mr. West referenced the moment in the Gospels when St. Andrew approaches his brother St. Peter, and announces that he has found the Messiah.  We were asked to imagine what an impact such an announcement would have had on a Jew of that time.  West then analogized this impact to that which he would have on Mick Jagger, in regard to the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction”, if he were to approach the singer and announce that he had, in fact, found the satisfaction that Jagger had been looking for (i.e., the love of God.)

This comparison was, quite frankly, rather tasteless and intellectually inept.  First of all one suspects that the aging British lothario would not even care if Mr. West informed him that God was the answer to everything, given that Jagger is a rather well-known atheist.  Second, such a comparison belittles not only St. Andrew’s declaration of faith, but the history of Judaism and indeed all of salvation history itself.  St. Andrew is making a statement of belief, drawn from what he has heard preached in the synagogues and prayed about his whole life as a Jew, and combining that with what he has seen in the person of Christ, to reach a startling and indeed a highly dangerous conclusion.

Even if Mick Jagger had been complaining in “Satisfaction” about the fact that all of the affairs he was having were making him feel like life was meaningless, and that he needed to find true love through something larger than himself, even then such a statement would not be analogous to that of a 1st century Jew publicly testifying that not only had the Messiah of Israel arrived, but that he had actually met Him.  Such a comparison would be ridiculous, even if the highest art was put into the muscial composition at issue.  For as it turns out, while everything may be art, not all art is equally worthy of our examination at this level of analysis.

With all due respect to JPII, It is not true to say that art is the language of the heart, as Mr. West stated last evening.  Sometimes it is, even in its ugliness, as Mr. West rightly pointed out.  There is great heart to be found in the horrors of Goya, the terrors of Beethoven, and the chills of Poe.  Yet sometimes what may technically be “art” is not actually any good.  It can be simply meaningless junk: an expression of base motives and desires and nothing more, not worthy of the average person’s time or attention.

To make statements of eternal qualities from material not intended for such a purpose is rather like trying to coax a cat into using a leash so you can take it outside for a walk.  Even if you can achieve it – and in fact I have seen it done, once – is it really worth that much effort on the part of the average person to attempt it?  It would be far easier to simply get a dog, which was designed for just such a purpose.

Engaging popular culture in order to pursue the truth is something which we are all called to do, particularly when our long-held values are being intentionally degraded by purveyors of entertainment, advertising, and so on.  It is laudable that books such as Mr. West’s attempt to counteract the influence that such forces have had on our society.  Yet sometimes, we simply have to have the honesty and the strength of character to call a thing what it is, and leave it where we found it.

Magritte

“The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte (1929-1930)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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12 thoughts on “An Unsatisfying Evening

  1. I think this is a very good point, that while the possibility exists that one may find the desire and need for God in rock music or pop culture as a whole, the need for a discriminating eye is paramount. I’ve just submitted a bit on the opposite of your above stated problem, the “pillarization” of Catholic art into a sort of ghetto, where sub par kitsch is accepted just because it’s “Catholic.” I’ll send you a link when it posts.

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  2. I probably shouldn’t put this in a combox, but I don’t feel particularly well-behaved tonight. Mention of CW brings to mind the phrase I’ve taught the children, now their almost pavlovian response to peas on the dinner plate, “This is not to my taste.”

    That said, I have a half-question, half-observation; a great deal of art intended to convey eternal qualities falls very far short. It’s flat and copy-cat. Of the pieces that succeed, is there any general observation that can be made about the artist’s level of conscious intention? I’d note that many of these artists (I’m including music & poetry) break new ground in their genres eg. Beethoven, Hopkins. Clearly the creation of these pieces is a highly charged, “participative” activity – whether tranquil or tempestuous. The artists are in a state of flow, used as a technical term.

    What really interests me is whether the answer to this might point toward a link between “high” art and folk art, the one breaking ground and seemingly touching the transcendent, the other intensely traditional, ruminative, immanent. Thoughts?

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    • Well thank you for misbehaving and leaving a comment, which is most welcome. Mr. Bootsma in the link provided below in the comments ponders some of the same questions, and your question is one that I often consider, albeit at times obliquely, in these pages. Essentially we have to balance out questions of merit and of taste – both grand opera and Saturday morning cartoons are, after all, popular forms of entertainment, albeit not of universal appeal. And while there are some quite terrible operas, there are actually some really enjoyable, good cartoons. Perhaps the first thing to take into consideration is whether the creator of the work has that gracious touch to make what he creates something that draws us in and keeps us interested long enough to consider what he is trying to say.

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  3. Thanks for a typically thoughtful piece. Mr. West seems to speak to a demographic that is largely not catechized nor highly educated. While groundbreaking in his day, I can send you a cassette (yes cassette) from the late 90’s with the “Satisfaction” analogy a a dozen stale Playb*y references. Based on your comments, would bet that there has been little maturation, if any in his reflections. The Courtier is hardly in his demographic.

    Your reflections on Catholic art are spot on. Barbara Nicolosi in a number of venues has made comments that compliment yours albeit with a substantially more earthier tone.

    The UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights, Rome has been encouraging artists through our “Bioethics Art” project to encourage artists of good will to channel their talent to the cause of human dignity.

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  4. I think I’m in West’s “target demographic” but like you, I’ve felt middle aged since many years ago. (The math remains that i am not middle aged, yet, unless the Lord calls me home much earlier than the typical life expectacy). I do not think his work is particularly to my taste, either… I appreciate you sharing your experience.

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  5. “…perhaps I should simply accept the fact that I am now middle-aged and always have been, even when I was about ten years old.”

    OH, how I can relate!

    I am in agreement with you in that Christopher West’s intentions are commendable. However, in my years of working with teenagers, I’ve realized that we very often ask so little of them, when they are quite ready and willing to rise to a higher level of thinking, hoping, dreaming, and relating. The pop culture references usually work well as bait, but as the meat of the message, they are unsuitable.

    Truth is resplendent.

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