Artificial or Authentic

A reader observes and agrees with my comments on the artificiality of America, but asks why I don’t provide an antidote to the poison. It’s a good question, and very difficult to answer. In the face of a massive culture of shallow entertainment and artificiality how do you live an authentic life?

I know a couple of good Catholics who want to construct ‘core communities’ of like minded folks who will buy a property in the country and live together in family groups and have chickens and pigs and ducks and cows and live together and pray together living the simple life. But in our day and age isn’t that also (in its own way) contrived and artificial?

Some folks recommend that we go back to our roots. One of the contributing factors to the artificiality is that we are so mobile. We move and live all over the place. If I, for example, were to go back to my roots, however, it would mean going back to Pennsylvania and living a Mennonite kind of life. This would be fake as well because that is not where I am. Other choices were made for me and by me at different stages and so to ‘go back to my roots’ would be artificial, and furthermore, I could only do that if my whole extended family went with me. Ain’t gonna happen.

Shall I live more simply and not go to movies and theme parks and get rid of my car and cell phone and avoid fake Italian restaurants? That too would be pretentious and contrived, self conscious and artificial.

It’s a Catch-22.

I think, therefore, the answer lies within. Each person must strive for authenticity within himself. Chesterton says, “Every argument is a theological argument.” I believe that real authenticity can only be built from the ground up. It begins in the heart. Each one must seek first the kingdom of God so that everything else will be added to him. True authenticity is linked with the true faith. Only as we seek God in the fullness of the Catholic faith can we find true authenticity as well.

I don’t like to use this blog to bite at Protestants, but when we look at the problem theologically and historically I can’t help but draw the conclusion that Protestantism, with it’s basis in nominalism, its political utilitarianism, its individualism and sentimentalism is at the root of the rot. I also say this because, when I travel to Catholic countries the artificiality and entertainment culture is not as bad.

I know my opinion is predictable, and I’m happy to be shot down, but put simply, the answer is for more people to be good Catholics.

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  • kkollwitz

    In each time and place everyone is called to be an authentic human being. Some aspects of that will never change, some will be be in flux. Yet there's still room for artificiality, which can be valuable especially in social settings (I'm thinking right now about formal wear, pwopah etiquette, etc.).Buildings aren't going to exceed the authenticity of the people who want them & design them, and some artificiality there can be useful as well (I'm thinking about the Parthenon, not Cinderella's Castle).If you think the Mona Lisa, diamonds and pearls are beautiful, but you can't afford real ones, why not buy imitations and be happy with them?

  • geeklady

    I think that we might be over thinking the problem slightly. The artificialness of Olive Garden and such is in the perfectness of the facade. It's like how interior designers stage homes for photographs. We look at them and wish our home looked like they do… But they can't, because real life is messy. The perfect living room in the photograph could never be mine, no amount of money could make it so, because there are no books in the process of being read, no knitting, no computer paraphernalia or litter of crayons and blocks and trucks. It's staged, not lived in. The greater the staging, the more artificial it is.Olive Garden is more heavily staged than the little family Italian restaurant we like. But both are still staged. And both are more authentic than Disneyland , which is all staging and no substance. The restaurants all center their staging around the food, which at least attempts authenticity. At Disneyland, food is just another element of the staging.

  • flyingvic

    I once went to Lourdres – but I doubt I shall ever go again. It was such a struggle to find a way through all the stalls selling plastic kitsch souvenirs, cheap 'Happy Death' crucifixes (sentimentalism?) and the like, the sort of trash that can be found in the worst seaside resorts. Nearer the shrine the predominant noise was made by officials telling numbers of (Catholic?) pilgrims to be quiet…If I wanted to build a judgement upon such flimsy foundations I might start having a bite at Catholics, but I think it would be unnecessarily artificial. As indeed would any suggestion be that the Roman Catholic Church does not have within it the individualism of dissenting voices on such matters as contraception and the ordination of women.

  • Marilyn

    I have a kitsch – a string of cheap, blue, plastic beads. Some of the beads are missing now and a few are cracked, but they are my “pearls.” I didn’t find it at Lourdes, but in the waiting room of an ICU where I spent three weeks while my daughter was hooked up to life support. One might call it divine providence. After my daughter received the Last Rites from a priest, he came into the waiting room and we prayed together. He noticed that I was fingering this “kitsch” and instructed me on the proper way to recite the Rosary. A very quick lesson enabled me to begin reciting the Rosary, quite ineptly, but a miracle followed. My heart always dies a little when someone attempts to deface or ridicule these cheap, Catholic kitsches. To someone, a kitsch might be their holy of holies.

  • Arkanabar T’verrick Ilarsadin

    God can and does work through such kitsch. The question to ask, flyingvic, is this:Does this kitsch belong at the center of the Catholic faith, or at the periphery? Is it the apex of Catholic expressions of faith, or the base? And if it is the base, can one who loves this kitsch not come to appreciate the stuff at the apex, like the Sistine Chapel and the chant of the Dominican Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos?

  • nmoerbeek

    The world is passing away. Jesus Christ told us not to worry about what we are to eat, drink or wear. The question is whether or not that our Charity is real or artificial, is our sign of peace genuine or is it false, is are heart pure our tainted.

  • flyingvic

    Marilyn and ATI, I think you miss my point. I personally do not like cheap plastic faith 'bits and pieces'; but then I don't go in for sumptuous gold or platinum crucifixes as designer accessory jewellery either. I don't like the thought of a given-by-God faith that is precious to me being represented either by cheapness or excess. The Sistine Chapel is glorious – but would it be right to spend that amount of money and effort on every single place of worship? Exactly how much we give to or spend on the House of God is a matter, surely, for fine judgement.But all this is beside the point. Father, in his usual and incorrigible manner, dragged overt criticism of alleged Protestant characteristics into a comment on the alleged artificiality of much modern American culture. I simply wanted to point out that sentimentalism, for example, is not exclusively the preserve of Protestantism; and that individualism, as exemplified by dissenting voices on important matters, is notably present also within the Roman Catholic church.

  • Lindsay

    Thank you, Father, for addressing my question so thoroughly.Flyingvic, I think you are right that Catholics have their own share of kitsch and sentimentality. I suppose, though, in one sense, we can be grateful that we don't do it nearly as well as Protestants, lol. Somehow, I think that if Protestants had plastic rosaries, they would have much slicker packaging and look a lot less like they were made by girl scouts (which these rosaries, by the way, are indestructible and ideal when trying to say a rosary in the vicinity of a toddler). And yet, perhaps there is something authentic about their cheapness–their not approaching the strange perfection Geekmom alluded to.Lots to think about Father. Perhaps you could create a visual aid like the federal government's food pyramid (or whatever it is now) on how to live a well-balanced life, lol. Life would be oddly artificial if we tried to avoid anything artificial. For some reason, my thoughts keep coming back to prohibition–an incredibly unnatural event directly linked to America's strong Puritanical roots. Perhaps it is this Puritanism that seeks to make everything, again, "too perfect" until most of the things of worth are washed away? Catholicism is "earthy," and there is little that is earthy about Disney World or The Olive Garden except for us, the clientele.

  • Curtis K

    Good points Father! I agree 100% that we need to start form within (like Jesus said about removing the beam from our own eye first). If even a handful of people were to authentically live the Gospel, the the world would truly be transformed (look at the impact Our Lord, the Apostles, and the Saints have had).One good resource is 'Introduction to the Devout Life' by St. Francis de Sales. I think that he has some good advice on applying the Gospels to our lives.For those who want to throw stones at the Catholic Church.. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and start digging through the references and resources. Don't assume anything about the teachings of the Church without making an honest effort to understand the 'why'. I have yet to find anyone who hates or disagrees with the Church who can honestly say they know and understand what she teaches and why.Look to see how the first 500-1000 years of Christians lived, worshiped, and taught. I think you'll find the Catholic Church to be in line with the early Christians. There have been plenty of imperfect Catholics throughout the history of the Church, but that doesn't make everything about Her invalid.

  • JohnOS

    Fr Dwight: I love visiting the US, but the artificiality means I could never live there. It's a cliche that American tourists come to Europe and say "gee, the buildings are older than my country!" When I go to the US I'm always struck by how impermanent and new everything seems. There seems to be no sense of rootedness – quite the opposite. As a Western European I'm used to being and living in places with people who live traditions that are connected to their place and passed down through generations. That's why I'm a Catholic, because it's the correct tradition for Western Europe. Were I Greek or Russian, the correct tradition would be Orthodoxy. John

  • Lindsay

    Tradition is only valuable in the truth that it communicates. It is sometimes painful to break away from our roots, but if our roots are based in schism with the Holy Mother Church, as Orthodoxy is, it must be done. We shouldn't blindly dismiss tradition because it is "old," but neither should we blindly follow it by accident of birth.

  • jenniferfitz

    Father,I think play is important. For grown-ups. Because it is what gives us beauty.I'm thinking of the immense playfulness of the medieval cathedrals, or a colored-tile mosaic rooftop in Dijon, or the inevitable inventiveness of human beings and their hats.The thing with America is that we are very very rich, and we have so many ideas. So we play too much, I expect.We can rein it in, and should, by working and working at trying to conform our lives to the Gospel. And that way eventually we'll be poor enough and brave enough that our pretending will express only our very favorite games. And I think that's authenticity. Putting on a funny hat, but it's the hat you love most.

  • Shaughn

    Fr. L writes,"Protestantism, with it's basis in nominalism . . ."Full stop!Somewhere, C.S. Lewis, the Caroline Divines, the Cambridge Platonists, +Charles Grafton, +Seabury, and countless others are rolling in their graves at the insinuation that they are nominalists. Ick. Ick, I say!Nay, rather, most of us in that vein are very firmly realists with solid metaphysical credentials. It's true that much wrong with Protestantism lies in its lack of metaphysics and its surfeit of utilitarianism, but you'll find Roman Catholicism riddled with utilitarianism, too. Lay Eucharistic ministers? Faux candles? The present state of hymnody? Utility, utility, utility!The beauty of catholicism is you can have it all: metaphysical sanity, aesthetically sensible worship, sound doctrine, dignified devotion. It merely requires proper catechesis and elevation of the congregation, something far too many clergy of all stripes are unwilling to do. Sheeple (a technical term) are easier to deal with, I suppose.

  • Shaughn

    As a point of clarification, by "clergy of all stripes," I really do mean that — Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Orthodox, and on and on. Wouldn't want you to think I'm anything less than equal opportunity in this day and age!

  • Suburbanbanshee

    And of course American buildings mostly aren't rooted. If you want rooted, you go with trees. There are places where people live for generations and don't leave, even in the US; you go there, where the trees are.But most American families came from immigrants, and live inside the historical tradition of continued American migration. You follow the job you're in, or the military base you're assigned to, or the opportunities for a better life for your family, or getting away from trouble and bad reputation, or following the need for elbow room and not feeling closed in. We have a lot of space; you can always move someplace else.I'm a fairly rooted person myself, but the idea of everybody having to live that way is creepy. If worst comes to worst, I can always dust off my shoes and find someplace better, and maybe not even someplace I have to pay money for.

  • Just another mad Catholic

    I am currently re-watching the 1981 adaptation of Brideshead, yesterday afternoon I watched 'orphans of the storm'.In the second half of the epidsode we see Brideshead under the dominion of Rex Motram with his roulette tables, immodestly clad women and caddish crass politico friends.Although it did not pass my mind at the time my thoughts approximated Sic Transiet Gloria Mundi and it boosted my desire to become a Priest and/or Religious. To work for fleeting power like Motramm is a waste of time, how much better to work for souls.