What I mean is “successful” in the world’s terms. Now that I’ve returned to America after living in the damp lands for twenty five years, one of the things I find most trying is America’s love affair with “success”. I’m not talking about being excellent or being a fulfilled human being or finding what you want to do in life and doing it well. I’m certainly not talking about building a fine family or simply being happy, and I’m certainly not referring to being achieving sanctity.
I’m talking about the lust for worldly success–for all the glittering prizes. How Americans love the trophy house, the trophy car, the trophy wife, the trophy teeth, the trophy boob job, the trophy botox. You name it. How they love all the tinsel–all the trappings of success, and the problem is that this pursuit of success is taken as a given. This is what life is all about right? No one questions it.
I see it in our schools in the crazed and crazy worship of athletics. Geesh, the amount of money spent on athletics in our schools and colleges is insane! –and not just the expenditure of money, but the expenditure of time and commitment and physical injuries. I see it in the hype, the cheerleaders with their fanny waggling sex appeal. I see it in the hyped up, aggressive “Crunch the enemy!!” mentality. I see it in the way–by extension– they turn academics and fine arts into yet another competition. “Don’t worry if you’ve learned anything. Just win the prize! Win! Win! Win! Get into the Honor Society!” I knew one mother who paid her kid to join the Math Club so he would make it into some Honor Society or other.
There’s some kind of primitive passionate drive behind it this need to win–this need to succeed. The need not just to succeed, but to beat the other guy. Then they all get together and give themselves big plastic trophies, and have these honor society ceremonies and give themselves more plastic trophies and the plastic trophies symbolize their plastic victories, their hollow success and their shallow ambitions. “It doesn’t matter if the trophy is plastic! What matters is that they are big and you have lots of them.”
Now here’s where my rant becomes even more rabid: in Christian circles they equate this success with being good Christians. This “God has blessed me so I must be wonderful” schtick is a Protestant thing, but the Catholics have soaked it up uncritically. They don’t say it in so many words, but the underlying value system says it all. The big shiny success thing is what it’s all about, and the Catholic religion becomes icing on the cake. “Gee we must be super wonderful successful and shiny people because we’ve not only got our suntanned lives and perfect smiles organized, but we go to church too!”
The problem with this is that their Catholicism (if that’s what it is) is used as a prop for their totally uncritical acceptance of the big, wonderful, obscenely materialistic American way of life. They blend their form of Catholicism into their American success story seamlessly, and this is where it gets real bad: the kids they are educating in their schools absorb it all and equate being a good Catholic with being a good, shiny and outwardly respectable successful American.
This is Christ consumed by culture rather than Christ critical of culture.
Maybe it’s the Mennonite in me, but I don’t buy it. Never have. I smelled a rat twenty five years ago and scuttled off to England. Now I’m back it’s bringing out the prophet in me.
I know I know I know…there’s lots of wealthy Catholics who are very generous and humble and all that. This post is not about them. It’s about the shiny ones who are pursuing worldly success and the glittering prizes and never once question their lives. It’s my suspicion that their lives are unexamined that worries me–not that they’re rich, but that they’ve accepted the standards and values of the world without demur, and not only that, but they’ve equated it all with being good Catholics thus emasculating the gospel by seeming to embrace it.
It reminds me of those awful turn of the century stained glass windows in which Jesus is wearing a splendid robe, mincing through a garden with perfectly combed blonde hair. They took the hillbilly carpenter and tamed him. They’ve taken the country revivalist preacher with a line in end times prophecy and a healing ministry and turned him into some sort of aesthete with yellow hair and a little lamb.
It makes me want to be radical — go out and do some street preaching myself and maybe turn over some tables or go work with the poor and prisoners and the down and outs and do something beautiful for God, and be a good Catholic…
…even if I’m not a successful one.