Having grown up in a small town in the countryside, not on a farm myself but surrounded by them, I was fortunate enough to have a sense not only of where our food comes from, but of what it takes to go from barn to supermarket to dinner table. I can spot the difference between soybeans, alfalfa, and corn beginning to emerge from the ground. I know that some of the animals I might see standing about in the pasture today, will not be there in a few months’ time. I can also discern the difference – at a distance – between the odors of cow, pig, and sheep manure fertilizer.
And because I know it when I smell it, I think it’s time for us to take a step back, and take a big whiff of what society is telling us about the Church: because quite frankly, it’s a load of…droppings.
Christianity is increasingly presented as an obstacle to personal fulfillment, however one chooses to define that term this week. Many Catholics around the country seem to be agreeing with that assessment, if you saw the recent map showing the distribution of the major religions of the United States. Although Catholics are now the largest religious group in this country, many of the states where Catholics are the majority have Mass attendance levels which barely keep the parishes open, causing one to wonder what exactly these Catholics actually believe.
What is the root cause of this blight? The fault, we are often told, lies in the rigid history of the Church, the negative aspects of which are repeated over and over again by uneducated entertainers, bitter academics, and the chat show hosts who fawn over them both. The alternative, or rather the only acceptable option now available to us, is a Christianity that conforms, rather than divides. We are all to be pigs together, not sheep and goats.
Under this scenario, one can snarf up from the communal trough whatever one likes, provided that no one else is offended by it. If only we agree to eat the same garbage that everyone else is eating, we are told, we would be much happier, and the world would be a better place. We would have things like fatter wallets, bigger muscles, and newer gadgets, making us into prize specimens, little gods of the domestic barnyard. And as we roll long our merry way, contentedly stuffing ourselves until we glisten in the summer sunshine, we forget what ultimately happens to farm animals.
If the line of reasoning presently being foisted upon us by the media and commentariat seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because it’s been tried before – and worked. For this is a shadow that has dogged our steps since the days of our first parents in Eden, despite those who try to dismiss their story as little more than a fairy tale. “If only” you do this, we’re told, as they were, you’ll be gods. The delivery may be different, since we don’t see many talking snakes these days, but if the formula works, why change it? Call it individualism, or self-actualization, or what you will, but the idea that abandoning the cross in order to embrace material things will keep us from suffering and death is the real fairy tale.
In fact, the only difference between Eden and today, is that the Tempter’s message has gone mainstream. Now it comes from people like self-help gurus, investment professionals, motivational speakers, and even supposed “Christian” evangelists. They come onto our televisions and into our inboxes, telling us how we can avoid the fate of all human beings for only 3 easy payments of $19,95. It comes from magazines and films that demand we pursue our own pleasure, whatever it might be, because it “feels” right, never having to consider why something as transient as a mere feeling is rarely going to serve us well. And in the end, those who promise us that they can turn us into prize pigs end up losing everything themselves, sooner or later.
It isn’t easy to resist the urge to join in the feeding frenzy at the trough, particularly when you’re constantly being told that you need to accept the garbage you’re being fed in order for your life to be a success. However, we will not cheat suffering, or keep death from the gate, by turning ourselves into creatures driven by our appetites. Our eyes need to be fixed on our church steeples, not on the various screens filled with garbage that, like pig troughs, so often remain the intent focus of the human gaze.
Let’s make a point this summer, just as the crops themselves are growing in anticipation of the harvest this autumn, to try in grow in the courage and steadfastness which will remind us that we follow a Good Shepherd, not a Cool Swineherd.