America the Artificial

After taking in the excitement of Universal Studios for two days with the family I commented on the fabricated, faux and artificial world that America has become. One friend commented that the entertainment culture has infected every aspect of our lives as well. Not only do we eat Italian food in a faux Tuscan villa next to a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, but the staff have been trained to give us the ‘Italian experience’ and some trainee opera singer is trundled out to bellow out ‘Happy Birthday’ in order to amuse and delight us. At the shopping  mall we don’t just buy clothes and furniture and whatever else we need, but in each ‘themed’ store we are expected to have ‘the experience.’

The shallow stupidity of it all is frightening, and then when we stop to consider we see that American Christianity has basically adopted the same, shallow, individualistic, ‘experience’ mentality. We’ve swallowed the secular culture totally and uncritically and we’ve adapted the Christian gospel to fit into this shallow, entertainment based culture without thinking. So the Evangelical mega-churches have become totally consumer driven, entertainment based and utilitarian in their message, and I’m sorry to say the rest of Protestantism has gone down the same path, and even more embarrassed and ashamed to say that most of Catholicism has gone down this path too.

So our churches compete with one another for members just like any other business. We run things according to our budget and our bottom line and consider people to be new members once they start contributing to the envelope stewardship plan. We incorporate entertainment styled liturgies and music and make sure  our homilies are catchy, funny, a touch inspiring and most of all–short. These things, disturbing as they are, are only the symptom of a deeper malaise within American Christianity–and in this I include Catholicism.

The deeper problem is the over emphasis on ‘the personal encounter with Christ’. Yes, of course Christ meets us and calls us to follow him. Yes, of course the personal encounter is important for our life in Christ, but just what is this ‘personal encounter’? What does it consist of and how do we know we have had it? For the Evangelical it means ‘getting saved’ or ‘accepting Jesus into our hearts.’ However, what is unspoken and yet universally assumed is that for this to be real there ought also to be a vivid and memorable emotional experience as well.

Likewise, within certain Catholic groups there is a great emphasis on the ‘encounter with Christ’. Just what this encounter consists of is never spelled out. Instead one is encouraged to ‘find one’s deepest desire’ and there one will  encounter Christ. I am increasingly of the opinion that this is really a load of hogwash. Emphasis on the ‘personal encounter’ apart from the objective realities of the Church and the Sacraments is a heresy–like all heresies not wrong in what it affirms, but it is wrong in what it denies (or de-emphasizes)

The desire for the ‘personal experience’ is a relativistic, subjective, sentimental phenomenon which, by it’s very nature, either ignores, denies or de emphasizes the objective authority of the Church. It is this essentially Protestant world view which contnributes to American culture being shallow, fake and entertainment based. It is also a poison within American Christianity–both Protestant and Catholic.

The answer of course, is the objective reality of the Catholic faith. Do you want to know where to find authenticity within all the artificiality of our modern world? Are you looking to find objective reality as an answer to the subjective ‘experiences’ you keep having? Are you searching for something solid instead of everything sentimental? Are you looking for a rock solid encounter with Christ with no doubts? Then look to the Catholic faith which is built on a rock. Make it the center of yoru life.

The Catechism says that Christ is encountered 1. in the Scriptures 2. In the person of the priest 3. In the Eucharistic Assembly 4. In the consecrated bread and wine 4. In the person of the poor. 5. In the lives of the saints.

There is the objective source or reality–all the rest is chaff.

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  • Clearly Salmon

    A really sad account of a 'reality'experienced by many. Surely though, recognising this faux experience, encounter, feeling, is discernible if you are really searching for the Truth? The Truth that you find only in the Catholic Mass. Thank goodness I've been spared the kinds of masses which you describe, and if I were to encounter them, I would speak out against it, question the priest about it. This kind of Mass is not what Mass is meant to be. Just look to the Holy Father. Mass is not entertainment,but prayerful, reverent, quiet.It's up to us as the body of Christ to speak up!!

  • Cheryl

    A very thought provoking article; thank you! I have often wondered about this need to be entertained at Catholic Mass or Protestant/Evangelical worship service. I always thought the emphasis should be on God and worshipping, praising and thanking Him, rather than keeping us entertained. The church isn't a movie theater or sports arena, built to entertain us. It is one place in this secular world where we can (and should) devote our thoughts, prayers and actions to God, rather than worry about whether we are being "fed." Yes, it is important that we learn more about God through the Gospel readings, because to know Him is to grow closer in our relationship with him. But expecting to be entertained at church…well, it just seems like we want church to be another Disney World or Universal Studios.

  • Lindsay

    Well said, Father. I agree. What is the answer besides seeking Christ through the sacraments and joining the church's building committee (both things of which we do and have done)? You "complain" of this fakery, and rightfully so, but you yourself just spent two days IN Universal Studios. I presume you paid money to go there. If this type of culture and entertainment is so alluring for an "old fogey" like you, how is it to be combated? Our local Italian parish has a "festival" for the feast of St. Anthony (poor, poor St. Anthony to have his name attached to this carnival). Some friends of mine worked hard for three consecutive years to bring some authentic cultural events to the festival–and it was greatly improved those three years. But they just got tired of fighting so hard and got beaten down by the status quo. Just a small example, but sometimes it feels helpless. Do you offer us only a diagnosis or is there a cure as well? (Please say there is a cure). Sometimes the "faux" is the closest thing to real culture that Americans have access to. Better faux marble than plain concrete, right?

  • Fr Longenecker

    Lindsay, there is nothing wrong with entertainment. I enjoy the movies, theme parks and the circus. I like playing games and having fun.The problem is when everything is viewed as entertainment.

  • Anneg

    Fr L, I have trouble with #3, especially at Sunday mass. We go to the Vigil to try to avoid some of the entertainment aspects. I keep having to remind myself that we are all on a journey, especially when I hear some people, coming out of Mass saying that they just don't believe this or that teaching.As for travel in Catholic countries, though, I have lived in a number of Catholic countries and they don't seem much better than we are about authentic Christianity.Re architecture, I don't like fake columns, either, but do you think there is anything wrong with using modern techniques and building materials in traditional architecture? The Romans were copying classical Greeks, after all.

  • Tito Edwards

    Father Longenecker,You write with a mega-hot-iron pen! Excellent article.I can't wait for you to return from your holiday to put more pen to paper so to speak!

  • Deacon Bill

    Would the oratory and model of Saint Philip Neri or some variation on that model help those who weary of the world and its artificiality? No abandonment of the world would be necessary but the fraternity and sorority of such sharing might help many find a substance and reality of the true kind in an artificial world.

  • RC

    Could Father expand on how this tendency appears in "certain Catholic groups"? It's hard to tell what he's referring to.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Why should Father name names? The tendency is visible in all sorts of groups (depending on the area), and from all sorts of walks of life, theological groupings, etc. You name names if there's a specific problem with one specific group, the only one falling down in such a way. Broad tendencies across broad swathes of Catholic society should be described broadly.If you can't think of any examples in your area, you don't have to worry about this article.

  • Ravensbarque

    Personally I found the article very stilted and totally devoid of love. Where is the relationship — the love affair — with God?