Materialism, Manicheanism and the Matrix

Do you remember that stylish film The Matrix? The hero, Neo Anderson, exists in a dull, conformist, monotone and monochrome world. Then he wakes up and is “born again” and enters the world of adventure and risk which is the real world.

What I find curious about modern American Catholicism is that it is similarly monotone and monochrome. The bland, egalitarian architecture, the shallow show-biz type music, the anodyne homilies and the assumption that the Christian religion is about being nice people and making the world a better place  reminds me of Neo’s boring world.

The paradox is that as our popular culture has become increasingly sensual, opulent and materialistic, our religion has become more barren, dumbed down and bland. This tendency for everything in church to be big and bland is not just that we’re trying to do religion on the cheap. We’re doing it on the cheap because there is a creeping Manicheanism in the church.

Manicheanism is the belief that the physical world is sinful. Our bodies are dirty and sinful. Sex is always dirty and sinful. Wealth is dirty and sinful. The material world is dirty and sinful. Manichee taught that we must rise above the physical and become spiritual. Underlying much of American Catholicism is this same belief–a kind of strange, below the radar Puritanism.

We’re guilty of a subtle and weird form of hypocrisy. We load up our lives with as many rich and lush experiences as possible. Our homes are palaces. Our vacations are luxurious outlays of self indulgence. We spoil our kids, we spoil ourselves. The average suburban American middle class person eats and lives at a level of luxury and opulence a Roman emperor would be impressed with, but  when it comes to religion we do it on the cheap.

I don’t think this is simply because we are ungenerous, but because we really do think that somehow our religion is the  place where we “do austerity” for an hour every week because we have this idea that we should all be poor Franciscans, and that the Catholic religion is otherworldly and poor and that being Catholic means we should be against all that expensive stuff and against pleasure and so the church should be like a bare auditorium–just a place to meet in before we go out into the world.

So, on the one hand, we live like princes, but expect the Prince of Peace to live like a pauper. We distrust the physical aspect of our religion, and this is evidenced not just by the cheap, barren architecture, but also by the sentimental, tacky music, the polyester vestments, the fake electric candles and the felt banners with cliched slogans.

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  • u3

    On a side note, when the Matrix movie first came out I was wearing a cassock in public and a lady stopped me and asked where I bought the Matrix outfit from! I had to laugh, then I explained.

  • Amy H.

    This article, and especially Part 2, “Materialism and the Matrix,” clarified a decades-old problem for me: how do we view the material blessings God has given us without feeling guilty? In my Protestant phase, I asked this of the Baptist pastor of the church we were attending and he had absolutely NO idea how to answer me. I was so sad and frustrated.

    How beautiful, rich and fulfilling is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. It is the Source and ultimate Goal of our worship at Mass (and what drew me back home to the Catholic Church), and thus, our views of everything else falls into its proper place in our lives, as you so simply stated, “according to their eternal worth.” That is the key, “according to their eternal worth.” Beautiful! Thank you, Father, for your insight! I now have the clarity I’ve been seeking for so long. x

  • KnoxvilleTim

    I believe this doesn’t really get to the crux of the issue. The joy and deep faith one receives from the Holy Spirit from a conversion of the heart, not just the mind, can never compare with the fleeting pleasures of the material world. Many Catholics are cognitive Catholic in the mind, but have not been truly converted in their heart. As for the material world being dirty and sinful, well God created this beautiful world. It is a gift of his glory. Sin is simply the result of selfishness, narcissism, and egoism. Christ clearly instructed us to releases our self-centeredness for other-centeredness, to unconditionally love others as God loves all of His creation, and to put others first. To do anything but these things leads to selfishness and ultimately behavior that is called sin. I prefer not to use the term sin as it has so many connotations associated with it. I substitute the word sin with self-centeredness and egoism. This perspective then casts a whole new light on the subject of your article, basically making the concept of dirtiness go away. It’s not a matter of being dirty, but rather a matter of being narcissistic.

  • Brennan

    I think your comments are spot on. I think part of the issue is that we no longer recognize the importance of beauty and reverence in things like architecture, music, and the liturgy. Beauty helps lift our hearts and mind to God.

  • Jennifer Fitz

    I’ll disagree a tiny bit, Father. I don’t think that in my neck of the woods, it’s a rejection of the material world that explains the state of our parishes — more a sense that what’ve got around us is the best we’ve got.

    We sing about ourselves and our virtues at Mass, we dress exactly like we’ve been instructed by the popular media, and we pick mass settings that represent the best of American culture today — show tunes. I’d hazard our parishes are no tackier or austere than our own living rooms. Even the going craze for tight clothes and tiny skirts among all all the Christian teens, and a little cleavage for the grown ladies, has at its heart an appreciation of the female form, however misguided. We take the ‘best’ of all week long, and present it to our Lord in complete sincerity.

    What’s missing, I’d assert, is the notion that there’s anything greater this. A better way to dress, a better way to live, a better music, a type of prayer or song directed towards the worship of God, rather than the celebration of what we’ve got here and now. It’s not puritanism. It’s atheism.

  • Alex

    Excellent point! I agree completely. I do not believe that adorning a church with beauty is wasteful or hypocritical. A beautiful church richly adorned should be a reflection of reverence, not excess. Many cynics believe that money that beautifies churches should be spent on the poor. But there is value in beautifying the church.

  • lethargic

    “We sing about ourselves and our virtues at Mass, we dress exactly like we’ve been instructed by the popular media, and we pick mass settings that represent the best of American culture today — show tunes. I’d hazard our parishes are no tackier or austere than our own living rooms. ”

    Indeed. Since we lilke it so much, we think God simply must like it, too.

    Another slant: I grew up protestant in church buildings that were plain white-walled econoboxes. The fundie anti-Catholic church of my mother’s family had those old paintings of Jesus knocking at the door and the portrait of Jesus with shoulder-length Breck-girl hair as its only “icons.” The building had stained glass windows, but in geometric patterns, not catechetical images. The modern Catholic church-builders must similarly want to insist that they are NOT Catholic. And we the people just take it because (1) we dont’ care? (2) we don’t know better? (3) we trust the “experts”? (4) we obey our bishops? (5) we really aren’t Catholic? What I really don’t get is why the bishops permit this kind of nonsense. Doesn’t the bishop have the authority to say make it right? I’m not seeing that anyway.

  • Marguerite

    I totally agree with Jennifer; we don’t give Our Lord our best. Many churches are tacky and our worship is sloppy. It’s a crisis of faith perpetrated on the masses by people whose faith is questionable, i.e. theologians in acaedemia and the progressive mentality of priests and women religious. It could even be called trickle-down heresy in some case. Sad.

  • Marguerite

    Most of the “protestantization” of Catholic churches, i.e., removal of candles, replacing Crucifixes with the “Risen Jesus on the cross–interesting but theologically incorrect in that Jesus did not rise from the dead on a cross but from a tomb), holy statues, beautiful stained glass, altar vestments, etc. was to accommodate those who criticized our mode of worship. Thus, in a spirit of ecumenism, we accommodated ourselves to remove anything offensive to our protestant brethen. Most bishops were complicit in this so don’t expect anything soon from your local bishop. It won’t happen.

  • S.

    I’m grateful that my 130 year old church has beautiful stained-glass windows of the saints, old type, big and beautiful statues, and LOTS of gold. Just walking in, I’m made aware that this place is like no other I will enter all week and I am elevated to a higher level of being. And then I begin to converse with my Lord, which elevates me even higher. Then there are the times I’m there for Mass, where I am actually taken to Heaven on earth. However, it seems to me that a great majority of our parish feel more comfortable bringing our Lord and the whole church experience down to their everyday comfortable human level by the way they dress, act, and immediately break out into ballpark voices the moment Father leaves the altar. “Socializing is an important part of the Church” I’ve been told and to which I agree, but as with all things, there is a time and a place. Or maybe more accurately, there are times and places where socialising is inappropriate. We forget that Christ DID come down to our level this very time of the year many many years ago. He came down to our level to make it possible for us to elevate to His. Beauty draws us naturally to God, whether it’s in nature, BEAUTIFUL music and, yes, beautiful churches.

  • Suzi

    I visited Gozo the sister island to Malta. The Churches are exquisite, breathtaking and the parishoners who over the years paid for their Churches live in modest homes. You want to be reverent and Holy in these Churches, one feels the presence of God.
    You have no time or desire to look anywhere other than the adorned alters and paintings and architecture. In the “bland” Churches here one can be easily distracted by people as they have nowhere to divert there eyes. One can’t even find the tabernacle , it is down the hallway, behind you or even out near the parking lot.
    Just my input I drive 24 miles to Mass so as to escape the bland.
    I love Jesus.

  • Denise M. Sharar

    there is a reason why I don’t go to the movies anymore. when the crow flies that means if you don’t do what is correct you will be dead next. it’s best to clean up your own house before judging others. hope you have recovered from your mormon phobia. protect the innocent. ass kicking catholic.

  • bg

    ..with only twenty percent of Baptized Catholics attending mass , I can see why parishes can only afford felt banners ,

  • jean

    As a catholic sculptor and painter I agree – We are an incarnational faith – and God made creation very beautiful for our sake. However, the church must support artists and not expect us to work for free or we cannot exercise the gift he has given us or feed our families.

  • Melinda

    Thank you for your words of wisdom. How very true that Jesus Christ did not rise from the cross but from a tomb and this is so missed in the hurry to eat the fruit of holiness without being holy.

  • Bob

    I agree with Fr. Longenecker on all of these points. But I would add something; my perspective as someone in the pews is that while the liturgies have been to some extent dumbed down and stripped of beauty, the big problem for me is the sense of worldliness that we bring into the church. We bring our cellphones and the distractions of the day. Some of the kids are even allowed to play with their video games because parents don’t want to be the bad cop and at least try to get them to pay attention. We don’t recollect ourselves before Mass because we’re too stressed out, or because we only got there two minutes before Mass started, or because everyone else is just sitting there looking into space, and what will they think if I actually kneel down and try to pray. Lackluster homilies and saccharine music don’t help, but the most ornate liturgy won’t make any difference if we still haven’t got that reverence that Fr. is talking about, the reverence for the Eucharist. It might also help if we got to know some of the people in our parishes. It’s been said that Protestants characterize salvation as an individualistic “Jesus and Me” affair, but we Catholics essentially say the same thing if the only contact we have with each other is the handshake during the sign of peace…which is not the right time for a handshake anyway.

  • jean

    Hi bg,
    We have lost a generation in the Catholic Church through poor catechesis, one form of catechesis was through the art works within the church.
    When I restored a statue of St. Jude, people began complaining to the priest that they couldn’t donate their decimilsed pound coins into the old penny slot on the wall next to him.He had to get oneof hte parishoners to take a file to the slot to open it up. What I mean by this is, that people want to have splendid interiors to their churches. Sometimes the pastors can be slow to support changes – maybe because of the perspective they were given in seminaries from the 60′s onward.
    Ours is a sensual and opulent faith – because all things should be used to draw the heart to God …as to felt banners, I have even seen a black and white photocopy of O.L. of Czestechowa in a church with pre-raphaelite interiors over the pond here on Merseyside. (I’d have thought the pastor would have at least supplied a colour photo copy if nothing else!)
    Beauty draws people in – I’ve seen it on many an occasion . I’ve heard a number of conversion stories where people were drawn in by thesound of hymns being sung. It is a good starting point for drawing people in, and renewing catechesis . And anyway, shouldn’t we be giving God of our best – like in the story of John Vianney and the gold chalice!