431428_10151097516937278_171183445_n

Would You Like Some Wine With That Cheese?

By | June 7, 2013

431428_10151097516937278_171183445_nGK Chesterton famously responded to The Times’ question, “What’s wrong with the world?,” by answering simply, “Dear Sirs, I am.”  Sheldon Vanauken made a similar point when he remarked that “the strongest argument against Christianity is Christians.”  Both men refer, of course, to sin.

But today, we Christians have really outdone ourselves.  We’ve somehow managed to become into an argument against the faith even when we’re not succumbing to immorality at all.  For in addition to the ubiquitous scandals of our sin, contemporary Christianity has another problem, perhaps responsible for even more damage to its evangelical efficacy.  Our faith has become, in a word, cheesy.

We live in a land of WWJD bracelets, Jesus-is-my-homeboy t-shirts, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend music, and “Tebowing.”  We traverse a “Christian” landscape as garish as a Thomas Kinkade painting, strolling to the beat of that sickly sweet poem about footprints.

With these as the most recognizable symbols of our faith, is it any wonder its former adherents fall away disillusioned, or that potential newcomers fail to take it seriously?  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “God is not an uncle.  God is an earthquake.”  First impressions today would suggest that God is something more like a Care Bear.

Frankly, despite having been inculcated with all of this indulgent silliness from a young age, I find it hard to sympathize with the cheerleaders of this style of discipleship.  There are good principled arguments against much of this sentimental excess, of course.  But to be honest, my reaction is more visceral than principled.  It actually turns my stomach to see the fullness of truth so belittled.

As the CS Lewis character in Freud’s Last Session says of his church’s hymns, it’s rather “like dipping a chocolate bar in sugar: unbearably cloying.”  The problem with them, he says, is that “they trivialize emotions I already feel.”  (The real Lewis, by the way, commented that such songs were just “fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music.”  We Christians built Chartres and crafted the Pala d’Oro; I’m confident we can improve upon “On Eagle’s Wings.”)

Contra the intentions of those sketching this Technicolor caricature of Christianity, such indulgent expressions diminish rather than augment the grandeur of the faith.  The issue with cheesiness is that it makes Christianity appear unserious—not in the sense that it looks joyful as opposed to somber, but in the sense that it looks like a pleasant (if sickly sweet) fantasy rather than the ultimate truth about life, the universe, and everything.

The Church’s doctrine answers the most important questions we can pose.  Her instruction infallibly guides us in moral living.  Her sacraments effectuate our very salvation.  Yet we would trade the blood of Christ for the Kool-Aid of pop Christianity.  Even if we don’t drink judgment upon ourselves, we’ll still end up with one hell of a stomachache.

These widespread bastardizations of religious devotion inspired Thomas Bergler to write an entire dissertation on the immaturity of our contemporary faith lives.  In The Juvenilization of American Christianity, he argues that the twentieth-century focus on making religion palatable to our young people had the pernicious consequence of making youth-group devotion the default model for Christians of all ages.  As he puts it, like it or not, “We’re all adolescents now.”

And ironically, as is apt to happen when we edit the faith to fit the times, our cheesy rebranding has made Christianity seem irrelevant to the very young people it was supposed to be made marketable to.  The reason is simple: This dumbed-down version of orthodoxy offers them nothing they cannot attain without it.

Fellowship, fairness, and fun are all fine things, but Christianity has a monopoly on exactly none of them.  When we present the creed as nothing more than a sunny affirmation of these, with some ambiguous tie to your best buddy Jesus built in, it isn’t long before kids realize that the smiley savior isn’t so necessary for achieving what they had wanted out of this deal in the first place.

In a recent Atlantic article, Larry Alex Taunton describes a study of college-aged atheists that he and his colleagues had conducted, which asked these students what led them to their atheism in the first place.  Perhaps surprisingly, by and large these young adults were raised not in liberal secular homes, but in Christian ones.  They did not complain that their churches had seemed outmoded or boring, as we might expect, but rather that such churches had seemed unextraordinary and superfluous.

Their catechesis had been, generally speaking, neither obnoxiously traditional nor irritatingly intellectual; instead, the now-atheists had found it vague, superficial, and ultimately unsatisfying.  Writes Taunton, “[T]hese students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable.”

If Christianity is to be the alternative offering for these disillusioned youths, then we’d better present something that radiates authenticity, which we’ll never be able to do by dressing the faith up as something it is not.  If it’s to be the antidote to irony, which has become this generation’s default coping mechanism against the BS fed to them by Washington and Hollywood, the Gospel must inspire its hearers to embrace reality in its fullness.  Juvenilized corruptions are only going to encourage a similarly cynical disengagement from yet another too-good-to-be-true façade.

The Bible is not a self-help book, and while the Gospel is indeed good news, the Evangelists were not cast in the mold of modern-day motivational speakers.  Emotionally driven praise and worship songs are not going to win over anyone, and I swear, if one more person tries to tell me that the etymology of intimacy is “into-me-see,” I’m going to have an aneurism.

So what is the solution to all of this sugary nonsense?  Where can we look for a way forward?  Why, backwards, of course, to the fullness of our Christian heritage.  All that we need, we have had all along.

One piece of that tradition in particular that I think we would benefit from rediscovering is the liturgy: both Mass and the Hours.  These are, ultimately, the cure for what ails our cheesy modern church.  Of course, it’s not that liturgy is insusceptible of bastardization when cheesemakers get their hands on it, as though it’s somehow impregnable against the forces of juvenilization.  As we all know from painful Lifeteen-filled experiences, that’s simply not the case (a fact that should make us ever more grateful for the ex opere operato formula).

But when celebrated properly, the liturgy is as un-cheesy as any prayer could be.  For it replaces our Jesus-is-my-best-bud adlibbing with the words God himself has ordained for us to say to him, forming us in his image rather than vice versa.  Such ritual is God’s prayerful script for us, as it were, and God does not deal in cheesiness.

Perhaps what is worst about our age’s happy-go-lucky Christianity is that it cheats us out of half the story.  Zooming in on all the positive elements at the expense of the negative ones, we lose the ordered context within which the faith operates.  We get the good news of the Gospel, but with no idea what bad news it was supposed to be answering.  We’re handed redemption without sin, salvation without struggle, Easter Sunday without Good Friday.  In short, we lose the cross.

But a Christianity without the cross—and I don’t just mean the rainbow one on that rhinestone necklace—is no Christianity at all.  If a Christian never wipes that ridiculous grin off his face, chances are he’s not doing it right.  Our faith is many things, but painless is not one of them.  It’s pure, yes, but it is not sterile.

The suffering of the crucifixion is so essential to our tradition that St. Paul says he decided to know “nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Our Lord himself commands us, “Take up your cross,” and something tells me he isn’t thinking of the tacky hymn version.

The upshot is that we know Christianity will survive this spell of cheesy evangelization.  After all, if the gates of hell won’t prevail against the Church, I don’t think Joel Osteen is going to be bringing her down either.  But no matter how sure we are that the bride of Christ will move past this unfortunate trend, still we should be concerned about the souls that could be put in jeopardy in the meantime.  And aesthetically, we ought to want to fix this, since we should desire to offer God the most beautiful worship we can muster.

But for now, and for as long as we’ve got all of this cheese here, perhaps the best we can do is pair it well.  And on that note, I’m getting another glass of red wine.

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  • Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    Excellent. The self-styled traditionalists do counter this, but they tend to replace it with dour, neurotic, reactionary . . . what’s the opposite of cheese? You can ask them, as well, to take off that ridiculous frown.

  • Caroline

    ^ When you’ve seen what’s possible with the liturgy and the degree to which it has been bastardized, it’s pretty hard not to have some righteous anger because the contrast between what should be given and what is instead and its damaging effects on the faith is all the more stark. But come to coffee and donuts after a Diocesan EF Mass and you’ll see plenty of laughter, fellowship, and little kids dashing about and playing with each other.

  • John

    All of this, again and again. Excellent article.

  • Eoin Suibhne

    Excellent.

  • Susy

    Excellent. thank you.

  • James W

    Well put, Michael. As a high school religion teacher and (unconventional) youth minister, I can attest to the fact that what kids are looking for is an answer to the questions which make themselves human: Why do I suffer? Why is there evil? What is the point of life? (to name a few) If faith is not capable of responding to these questions then it is useless and I cannot blame anybody for walking away. Christ came because I needed the way, the truth and the life. If catechesis and our witness does not demonstrate a viable solution and approach to these questions, it isn’t doing the basic work of religion and is a scandal to the sacrifice of Christ.

  • http://huynhingattitude2.wordpress.com John Huynh

    This is an outstanding piece! And while it was meant to be a serious reflection, it also gave me a few good chuckles to start my morning. Thank you!

  • Amanda

    Thank you for this post. There’s a great deal of truth here. I’m Protestant, so I have less familiarity with the catechisms of the Catholic church. But I think the Church today is challenged in balancing the grandeur and awe of God as seen in the OT with the intimacy and grace of the NT. Too much emphasis on one side and you have Jesus as your best friend. Too much emphasis on the other and you have a remote and distant God smoting you (deservedly). I agree that in the US today Christians have definitely swung to the one extreme. The challenge is finding balance while deepening our faith and community. The traditions of the Church continue to be a huge resource that we often fail to delve into. Thank you for broaching this topic.

  • Michael W. Hannon

    Thanks Amanda. I appreciate the comment, though I have to admit that I think the dichotomy between the “grandeur and awe” of the Old Testament God with the “intimacy and grace” of the New Testament God is inapt. That alleged shift in divine character strikes me as a misread of both the old and new covenants. Of course the Incarnation reveals God more fully to us, but it does not change God in his divinity, and what Christ teaches us about the Godhead is not set off as radically distinct from Jewish doctrine. He fulfills rather than replaces what came before.

  • Katherine

    Well done, Michael. In his book, Jesus Shock, Prof. Peter Kreeft addresses this very subject. I highly recommend Kreeft’s accessible and brief text to any restless Christian.

  • Michael W. Hannon

    As do I, Kat. It’s fantastic.

  • Selina

    I would just like to say that, while I completely agree with everything in this article, I have also witnessed in large numbers the properly-successful use of what one might call “cheese.” In large Catholic missionary organizations for youth and young adults I have witnessed many young people reach for some fun “cheese” and find, when they reach for it, wine. No missionary organization can be successful without proclaiming the whole true message of Christ and the Cross. Fellowship, fun, praise and worship, and motivational speakers are all just tools, by which people are attracted to the faith or guided in their faith, but what they really turn to/stay for is the Gospel, the Truth. I have witnessed a large number of conversions. Perhaps it is a different aspect of bastardization that you are criticizing, a kind that does not reveal the whole truth with it, than the kind of things I witness, which is true conversion, and contrition, and love for Christ and the Cross, brought about in large numbers through certain tools that some may consider to be “cheesy” – but certainly not without All the genuine, never-changing teachings of the Church with it.

  • PJ

    It is pretty darn depressing to see how far we have descended to the Laodicean church level, as written in Revelations.
    But this broad brush “plastering” of American Christianity does nothing but harm to churches who struggle to accurately teach the Bible in a society that is becoming increasingly anti-Christian. Why is it that it’s so easy to point out our errors, yet seldom mention is made of all the “underground” work that Christians do? Where is the mention of former gang members doing street ministry? Where is the mention of the groups fighting human trafficking, and abuse and other horrors perpetrated by a blase society? The list of what is being done without fanfare, without fame or recognition is seldom touched upon.
    Maybe the author meant this as a clarion call. To me though, it seems that it looks solely at the surface and doesn’t even try to show what good is being done and how many are truly being saved.

  • Kate

    Thank you PJ. I think you begin to touch on why I find the article unhelpful.

  • Michael W. Hannon

    To Selina, this largely comes down to a question of hlyomorphism: Is it merely the matter that counts, or is form also crucial? As long as what we ultimately say and believe aligns with the truth, does it matter how we express or enact that? If the answer is no, if the matter is all that matters, then all of this is pointless. But if the order we bring to that content is also essential to Christian living, then we cannot just settle for cheese whenever it leads to conversion.

    To PJ, I think *a lot* gets said about these types of apostolates actually, and certainly they matter. But I’m not sure why that’s an argument against the above. It is simultaneously true that many Christians do good works and that many Christians have fallen into a sugary sweet parody of the faith. Indeed, there’s significant overlap between those, I’m sure. But that doesn’t make the ridiculousness okay. It just means that, even within our own Christian lives, there is both wheat and chaff.

  • http://www.faithbogdan.com Faith Bogdan

    Sigh.

    On the one hand, I wonder how much good it does to point out how cheesy much of the church is. Do cheesy people know they’re cheesy? Isn’t this rather like asking someone, “So what’s it like to have bad breath?”

    I have no doubt a few critics of Christianity and the church will read this and breathe a sigh of relief at knowing we’re not all “like that.”

    But I do wonder how many more will read this and conclude that, as you claim, the liturgy is “ultimately, the cure for what ails our cheesy, modern church.” I think the girl who visited our nondenominational church recently would disagree. She had attended a liturgical service the Sunday before, and was telling us how bored to tears she’d been by monotonous ritual. I have nothing against liturgy and personally find it beautiful, but my point is, it is for everyone, and certainly not the ultimate cure for the church’s cheesy condition.

    To continue your metaphor, I think the answer lies, in fact, in pairing cheese with wine. THE wine. I believe if we join hands with our less-than-cool and not-so-clued-in brothers and sisters and sit around the Lord’s table for a while, drinking in wisdom from each other with a humble and teachable spirit, we might come away with more than a wise and postmodern understanding of how to do church and reach the lost–we might just become a little more conformed into the image of Jesus. The One who loves those cheesy people and somehow manages to show up, Sunday after Sunday, in their cringe-inducing services.

    And I don’t mind too much having Jesus as a best friend. (Does that sound cheesy?)

  • http://www.faithbogdan.com Faith Bogdan

    Oops! I meant to type “(liturgy) is not for everyone.” ;)

  • The Irish Atheist

    I think it’s unfair to broadly blame the secularisation of American college students on ‘unextraordinary’ worship services. The majority of young atheists leave the church because the church’s message of ‘love’ seems paltry and offensive when Christians are so eager to hurt and malign those who don’t fall exactly in line.

    I for one didn’t lose my faith because I wasn’t impressed with my worship services. I lost mine when I survived the Christian terrorist bombing of Omagh, the last in a long and bloody history in my homeland. Why would I want to rub shoulders with the butchers of my people?

  • Garrett Reinhardt

    Michael, you are amazing! You need to write a book or something. I would love to read more of your writings!

  • Emily W

    I agree with the sentiment of this article wholeheartedly. However, as one of the “disillusioned youths” that you refer to, I also think that it is unfair to say that the “branding” of Christianity is the root of the problem with the Church today. I have attended a variety of congregations, many where liturgy was central to the worship service, and I still felt as if I were being force-fed a list of do’s and don’ts that have more to do with moral bragging rights than with the genuine improvement of humanity. Though I have a veritable grab-bag of reasons that I no longer believe Christianity is “the” valid source of truth, my central issue lies not with how it is sold to me (and you do seem to be arguing for a change in marketing strategy more than anything), but with the fact that it must be sold at all. I think that any truth, regardless of the failings of the humans that try to live by it, ought to speak for itself. In my experience, the more involved one becomes in Christianity, the more convoluted, exclusive, and demeaning it becomes. I do find any comfort in believing that there is no ultimate purpose. However, I would rather believe in nothing than in a faith that claims to have a message of love, grace, and acceptance, and in the same breath condemns created beings, who have very little say in their predispositions to certain ways of thinking or behaving, to an eternity of torture if they disagree with a part of its message. To me, this is the central issue, not the puppies and unicorns that have been marketed by the Church since the late 80s.

  • http://www.unveiled-hope.webs.com Songmorning

    I say Amen to most of this article, but though liturgy is good as words from God, I say it isn’t the solution to the complacent cheesiness in Christianity today. The solution is for Christians to actually go out and do what God is calling them to do–bring the WHOLE Gospel (without compromise) to all people; care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow; go to people who are trapped in the worst sins and tell them the whole truth of Christ! Act out the faith in all the ways God commands and respond to His grace with unyielding devotion and reckless confidence in Him! If Christians truly followed Christ, then cheesiness would vanish from the church and people would see the depth of truth and meaning in the Gospel. Liturgy is good, but it’s still something Christians do just in church on Sunday so it doesn’t fulfull the Great Commission.

  • Ed Yang

    Well written article. I, like a few others that commented, don’t necessarily agree with your prescription to the problem. But the first step in recovery is admitting there’s a problem. We need to get back to basics: read the Word and live the Word. All of it, not just the convenient parts.

  • carl palmateer

    The problem does seem almost universal to the American church. When the emphasis became “bottoms in the pews” the RC deemphasied the Mass and the Protestants did the same to “word and sacrament”. Both lost their foundations without regaining people. Although the prescription of regaining the past to win the future is a powerful image we must be careful about which section of the past we grab. Some of the apparent golden eras were gilded but rotten. The gospel is resurrection; we cannot return to full pews, overflowing offerings and dead orthodoxy.

  • Phil
  • http://www.livetheword.com Bryan Robinson

    This article is very well written. I agree with several of the points. But commenter Ed Yang summed it up in the most profound, simple terms:

    “Well written article. I, like a few others that commented, don’t necessarily agree with your prescription to the problem. But the first step in recovery is admitting there’s a problem. We need to get back to basics: read the Word and live the Word. All of it, not just the convenient parts.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. The problem with Christianity is ‘professing Christians’ who look like the world. How can we reach people who are lost if our churches are not filled with people who look like Christ?

    In John 14:12, Jesus said: “12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

    1 John 1:6 says: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”

    In verse 15, Jesus says “15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In the book of John alone, Jesus’ commandments are plenty.
    “abide in My love”…”love one another, just as I have loved you”…”receive me”…”follow me”..”believe in the light”…”ask whatever you wish”…”receive the Holy Spirit”…and many more.

    If we profess to be Christians, then we begin to look more and more like Christ.

    1 John 2:4-6 says “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

    The answer lies in every Christian. We must study the Word, know the Word and live the Word. As Ed Yang said, not parts of it, but all of it.

  • Peter Down

    Thank you. What an excellent article. I agree wholeheartedly with all you say.

  • Matushka

    Orthodox Christianity.

  • Chuck

    This article is great.

    On another note…the original source for the cartoon you’ve included is here: http://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2012/08/08/footprints-in-the-sand-part-1. I imagine the original artist would be happy to see the clicks redirected to his site instead of somewhere else.

  • Cheryle

    Excellent article. I think the “cheese” is valuable, perhaps, when attracting people. We are, after all, a society looking for the “quick fix.” I, for one, was brought into the fullness of a relationship with Jesus through “cheesy” songs – not in a teen-aged church camp, but as an adult with children. However, that wasn’t all that was offered to me, nor was I left with the feeling that the simplistic songs of praise were the end of the journey.

    I Cor. 13:11 isn’t just talking about chronological age. At some point, we must begin to accept and embrace growth, whether it’s in our secular lives or within our spiritual ones. Yes, we must come to God as children, but no loving parent wants his/her child to stay a child forever; God is no exception to that.

    As an Episcopalian, I love the liturgy and always have – even prior to those events that brought me into the fulness of my spirituality. However, whether or not one belongs to (or appreciates) liturgical practice, the pap that is being spread today is not contributing to the growth of the person. Freedom from poverty, illness, and hunger are not among the promises made to us. Unfortunately, too many people are hearing this lie preached to them, and are using it to condemn others.

    Thank you for the common sense (also in short supply these days) expressed in this article. Let us have ears to hear.

  • http://inferiorcopy.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

    Yes, yes, yes — there is a lot to be winnowed out of the Mass, and communal worship, and a lot to restore. A little restraint is in order, however, so consider this a reminder: Please don’t cut all the cheese.

    Cheese has its place in a diet, and some folks can’t live without it. Popular piety simply is cheesy, and to denounce it is, well, very un-Chestertonian. Certainly, a diet of cheese alone is unhealthy, but a dose here and there does wonders for some folks. Let them eat cheese.

    In the meantime, encourage the meatier devotions, the heartier spiritual foods, the true and full and complete devotion to Christ, the radical commitment to desiring the good for everyone, the pure and perfect dispositions when receiving the Eucharist. Revitalize the Mass, and criminalize or convert Oregon Catholic Press — but let them have worship music and glow-in-the-dark holy water containers, and Mexican-imported dollar candles, and do crusade against cheeses as such at all times.

    Encourage folks to pray the rosary. Even encourage them to pray the Divine Mercy. In the meantime, when it comes to extracurriculars, save denunciations for Medjugorje and leave the Virgin Mary bobbleheads alone — so long as they aren’t at the altar.

  • Sarah

    Bahahaaha! This is FANTASTIC. It put words to my visceral “blergh!”

  • Dallas

    Great article, articulates what many of us feel very succinctly. May we again know awe and reverence experientially and regularly in the Church!

  • Brennan

    I couldn’t agree more with this article, particularly with the word “unserious” as I believe that is the exact impression we are giving of the Catholic faith in most parishes.
    And I don’t think it’s entirely due to liturgical abuse. The committee which reworked the entire liturgy after Vatican II deliberately set out to adapt the prayers and gestures for their conception of “modern man” and according to one close friend of Pope Paul VI, he wanted to get the Mass as close to a Calvinist service as possible in order to facilitate ecumenism.
    No wonder it seems as if 90% of our liturgies are banal; it was designed that way.

  • http://lizluyben.com/ elizabeth luyben

    Brilliant!

  • MamaK

    My daughter who recently graduated from a Catholic college started a traditional choir and schola for our parish. When the choir went before the parish “liturgy committee” to get approval and put on the schedule, one of the middle-aged committee women suggested that it would be better to have more contemporary music to draw in young people. What was ironic was that most of the members of my daughter’s choir (including herself) was under 25 and no one was over 50. Fortunately, the pastor didn’t take the committee member’s suggestion seriously (and also pointed out the irony to her).

    Besides the worship at most parishes, what I find extremely cheesy are Catholic cruises. It sends Chucky Cheese shivers up my spine every time I hear “Catholic” coupled with “cruise.”