A new book soon to be released claims to have all the eternal answers to the eternal questions mankind has been asking itself since humans crawled out of a cave, looked up at the stars and asked “Why?” The author is going to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, and, in a year or two, one of the biggest names in Hollywood will star in the movie version.
The book isn’t out yet. It hasn’t been published. In fact, it hasn’t been written. But it will be, and the above sequence of events will take place. How do I know this? I’m a realist, and I keep an eye on popular culture. So I’m certain that, whether it’s an Anne Rice tome on what it’s like to have an on-again, off-again love affair with the Catholic Church, or the next Eat, Pray, Love or the next metaphysical puzzle-box offering from Eckhart Tolle, we will soon enough be bombarded with the latest “discovery” proving that god is us, we are god and organized religion has muddled things up. If Jesus is the protagonist of the book, which is doubtful, we’ll nevertheless be instructed to cast aside any dogmatic teachings in favor of channeling our inner hermit.
It seems our culture now lives with an Oprah-sized hole in its heart. More than a few folks will fill it up with whatever a New York publishing concern and a Madison Avenue ad factory can devise. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t doctrines and rubrics that must be obeyed. Imagine if the Bible were put in front of an editor at Random House. Picture the editorial scribbling on the manuscript: “Too preachy, too long and that whole Sodom and Gomorrah thing has got to go. Enjoyed the Red Sea scene; it’d make a good movie.”
When it comes to writing about the divine for the masses, God, it seems, needs to be put in his place. This may have its postmodern genesis in the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. History buffs will recall how, on the campaign trail in 1960, Kennedy promised Protestant ministers gathered in Houston — and, with them, a nation listening in — that, if he were elected president, Catholic teachings on faith and morals would have no bearing at all on his conscience as he carried out the duties of his office. That promise snipped the link between what Catholics say they believe and how they feel they should actually live. It wasn’t long before cafeteria Catholicism moved from the cafeteria to the pews.
Now we have a cottage industry of publishing and moviemaking where man’s search for God leads him not upward but inward. My dad used to call this “navel gazing.” Whenever he heard someone talk about trying to “find myself,” he would go into a kind of conniption fit.
That new book percolating in the soul of an author searching for meaning (and money) will be about how to find God on our terms: Belief in God is fine; some of our nation’s more tolerant elites even seem to view it as a quaint and harmless pastime. But some clearly expect their tolerance of “old-fashioned” religious expression to be richly rewarded and celebrated by all — including the “old-fashioned.” The purveyors of popular culture tolerate traditional religious language in direct correlation to the degree it doesn’t impinge on their right to mock it, shout it down or replace it.
For them, God is not allowed to ask anything of us other than to be tolerant of every idiosyncratic lifestyle, philosophy or belief system man can devise. Once a person takes the unwise step of believing not only in God but also in the moral responsibilities God expects of us, he or she is out of the Oprah Book Club for good.
You can write a book that will be loved and fabulously rewarded if you can entertainingly show that Jesus was misunderstood or hijacked by a crazed zealot like Saul of Tarsus or hammered and molded into something unrecognizable from his original intent by robed celibates behind Vatican doors. But if you write a book about how Jesus was the Incarnation, how he was the perfection of the Law, how he embraced ritual and organized religion — how he is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no soul comes to the Father but by him — you should expect far more modest rewards.
Now preaching to the choir is important for morale purposes, but we are also supposed to be out in the world and speak truth to power, even if it’s a formidable earthly power like Oprah Winfrey. We have to preach Christ, and him crucified — and be willing to take our lumps for it.
People will keep writing books trying to have God on their terms. This shouldn’t surprise us. The Bible is rife with examples of the very same thing. The rich young man in Matthew 19 wanted salvation on his terms. He was probably a very good guy, nice to the poor and honest. But when Jesus confronted him with the fullness of the truth, the poor guy just couldn’t bring himself to close the deal.
We are all like the rich man. We have some treasure we do not want to give up in order to follow Christ. It might be actual treasure, but it also could be our pride, our lust or a host of other man-made pitfalls warned about in that long, preachy book that would never get a second look from a junior reader at Simon and Schuster.
Robert Brennan writes
from Los Angeles.