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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

A Confederacy of Pious Bores

all day, every day

I once heard a story (which I have not been able to verify) that Martin Luther, because he was understood to have made the reading and interpretation of scripture everyone’s right (whether that was his intention or not), told someone, “I have turned every barmaid in Germany into a scripture scholar.” It was not meant as a compliment. And he wasn’t even on Facebook.

About a hundred years after Luther, the English playwright Ben Jonson essentially made his living by lampooning the pretensions and performative piety of English Puritans in his plays (Shakespeare did the same in Twelfth Night with his persecution of the Puritan prude, Malvolio). They were an easy target. The Elect always are. Especially when they constantly remind everyone how elect they are.

Were he alive now, Jonson would by no means be limited to Puritan fodder for his comedy: not a few Eastern Orthodox and, especially, more than a couple Catholics have unintentionally been providing rich comedic material for a good long while, now that everyone who goes to church has a blog and access to a dropdown menu allowing a signature on a filial correction (Dude! What the heck?). I wouldn’t complain if I saw much in the way of positivity or building-up among these zealots, but what I see is a lot of tearing-down and cruelty. As Flannery O’Connor’s character The Misfit would say, “No pleasure but meanness.” Or so it would seem.

The invention of the printing press surely brought plenty of benefits, but it also brought the potential for propaganda (Luther being foremost among its pioneers and masters) and the opportunity for incredible acts of malevolence, not to mention mass hysteria. Likewise, the internet and social media carry along with their benefits an incredible capacity for meanness, cliquishness, and sanctimonious self-fashioning. We have become a confederacy of pious bores.

Prior to the printing press (or at least prior to widespread literacy) Western culture was not so much characterized by evangelical zeal and holy self-fashioning as it was by conviviality and community. Of course, waves of “reform” by elites interested in whipping the unwashed masses into shape (that is, the shape of the elites) occasionally arose, but the primary characteristic of culture was one of plurality (I realize I am not entertaining the cultural anti-Semitism that was rampant—perhaps another time I will get into it).

Robert Herrick’s gigantic volume of poetry, Hesperides, is rather a handbook for the kind of plurality I’m thinking of. Herrick, an Anglican priest and pastor in 17th century Devonshire, catalogues his community in all of its glory, in all of its conviviality, in all of its absurdity. Among others, he includes poems about the lares (spirits of the departed), folk customs such as the maypole and Wassailing, and ridicule of some of his boorish parishioners. This is a Christianity that is rustic, local, and not afraid to show its warts. It is also gloriously embedded in the land and the land’s relationship to the Church year. The world Herrick depicts is not one marked by performances of piety but of the dynamics of communal flourishing (John Bossy’s classic text, Christianity in the West, 1400 – 1700 does a wonderful job of examining how this worked). Herrick’s archenemies, the Puritan establishment, kicked him out of his parish when they came to power. He returned right after Oliver Cromwell’s already-buried body was exhumed, quartered, and its parts sent to the four corners of England when the Parliamentarians fell from grace. Cromwell had outlawed fun on Sundays and Christmas celebrations, so he probably deserved it.

The internet and its unruly stepchild social media are rife with religious Puritans. Only now, they come in a variety of colors and fabrics: traditionalist, ultratraditionalist, social justice, socialist, free-market, neo-liberal, anti-neoliberal, anti-anti-neoliberal, and so forth. You will know them by their meanness.

Luther’s barmaid and those like her were “empowered” (what an impoverished word!) by the free interpretation of scripture. As a result, they inflicted their pieties on others, some of whom agreed (those already prepared to agree), while alienating the rest. The internet and social media have done much the same to our age, but exponentially.

Not everyone needs to engage in what can probably best be described as “asshole Christianity,” of course. In early modern England, for example, The Philadelphian Society

tried to spread a message of love and brotherhood. They were hardly the only ones. In our own time, I’m sure we can find those of like mind. Only they tend to get drowned out by the loudmouths and bullies.

We probably went wrong when we reduced Christianity to this or that set of propositions which need to be explained and then defended, certainly an inheritance of the espionage and counter-espionage characteristic of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. Not everyone needs to be a theologian. Theologians are just another walk of life, and not always a happy lot at that. And, contrary to what the guys and dolls over at EWTN and their Eastern Orthodox and Protestant counterparts would have us believe, not everyone needs to be an apologist, either. The New Evangelization, which sought to create a “Catholic culture” has failed, and miserably. The Catechism does not a culture make. If anything, what the New Evangelization has done is create a culture of pious bores, left or right, but empowered as all get out.

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