In a piece entitled “The Anatomy of Sloth,” recently posted online at Crisis Magazine, Professor Howard Kainz suggested that while “[g]reat, notorious heroes of lust, anger, greed, pride, and the other capital sins will easily come to mind,” finding such a notorious hero for sloth proves almost impossible. Allow me to suggest a candidate, albeit a fictional one. Her name is “Julia” and she was the subject of an info-graphic posted online in early May of last year by our current president’s reelection campaign. She gained some notoriety before being swept aside in the now-normal three-day churn of stories demanded by a 24/7 news cycle. Before we let her slip off into the oblivion of the Internet, though, we should consider the lessons “Julia” can teach us in stark, drab hues about the emptiness, the sickness, the very slothfulness, which characterizes our post-modern culture; the progressive secularists who champion it and, indeed, are currently running it; and what all this might mean for the New Evangelization.
Peter Kreeft was one of the first to comment on the role sloth plays in our current culture. In an excerpt from his 1992 book Back to Virtue, he notes, “[O]f all the seven deadly sins, sloth is the most distinctly modern. Nothing so distinguishes modern Western society from all previous societies as its sloth.” Understand, though—Kreeft is using here not the more traditional notion of sloth as simple laziness, but rather sloth as an inattention to those duties, those tasks, which God places before us for our own and others’ sanctification. Kreeft argues it’s possible, indeed probable, that one could be a workaholic in our modern world yet still be guilty of the sin of sloth, what Kreeft terms a “fidget,” always busy doing and acquiring, yet never attentive to living the life given to us by God.
Watching the Obama campaign’s 12 slides on the “Life of Julia” brings Kreeft’s argument into sharp relief. All of the most important activities of Julia are centered on school, work, and business ad nauseum. Her life of work begins early at the age of three, when she’s enrolled in Headstart. This, the very first slide in the presentation tells us, allows Julia to join “thousands of students across the country who will start kindergarten ready to learn and succeed.” Already she is to get busy at the age of three. All the other slides are similar as Julia goes through life—from college to opening a business to retirement—the major emphasis is always, and solely, on how she can keep working.
Even Julia’s health is completely tied to her work. The slide showing Julia at age 27 explains, “[T]hanks to Obamacare, her health insurance is required to cover birth control and preventive care, letting Julia focus on her work rather than worry about her health.” Note the focus is on her work, not her health. Good health is simply the means to an end—keeping Julia working.
Of course, it’s hard not to miss the particular “health concern” about which the Obama campaign sought to alleviate Julia’s worries—pregnancy. It is here that we see Julia as the archetypal Modern Sloth, for it is here we find just how Julia seeks fulfillment when she’s not at work. Bearing in mind the chief characteristic of the Modern Sloth is seeking frenetic distraction from the things of God; Julia must find something to do in her “spare time.” As Kreeft notes, in our modern culture, through a frenzied quest for entertainment, “[W]e are hiding ourselves; we are hiding the God-sized hole in our hearts.”
We see in Julia that a (seemingly paradoxical) peripatetic slothfulness extends to the non-working life. It leads her to treat even her most intimate of moments as a mere consumer product, as entertainment. This is not a particularly new, or modern, notion. Kreeft quotes Aquinas saying, “those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures [that is sloth] turn to pleasures of the body [lust].” In a similar vein Kreeft cites Walker Percy’s observation that “since modern man fears he is a ghost, he has to assure himself of his reality by lust.”
A look at Julia’s life shows an incredible dearth of real meaning. She “decides” to have a child. No mention of a loving husband, or of real passion involved in such a momentous decision. It’s like she’s choosing which Lean Cuisine to have for dinner. She opens a small business, thanks to government aid. She packs her kid off to the government-run school as soon as she’s able. She pays off her government-backed student loans.
These, according to the slide show, are the highlights of her life!
Oh, and she gets free birth control. No wonder she seeks some reassurance she is alive through sex-as-amusement. For Julia and her progressive secularist comrades, sex-as-amusement is all they have to divert themselves from the “God-sized holes” in their hearts. To paraphrase Descartes, the Modern Sloth’s creed is, “I copulate, therefore I am.”
Julia’s life comes close to that of Walker Percy’s ghost –and not just in the lack of any real meaning evident in its highlights. One of the creepiest aspects of “The Life of Julia” is the fact she has no face. For whatever reason—probably having to do with some desire to seem “all-inclusive” or “generic” or something like that—the designer of the slideshow unwittingly stumbled upon the ultimate cost to the individual of a life characterized by the modern sin of sloth: it steals from us of our distinctive, unique character as children of God. It defines us by what we do, rather than who we are. It robs us of truly being. The old adage holds: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” In truth, “Just work and play make Julia a dull girl.” This Julia’s designers symbolically, graphically, and no doubt unintentionally, depicted when they illustrated Julia without that which makes us most distinctive, a face. Without God, without the Holy Trinity, without metanoia and worship, without the sacraments—most particularly the Blessed Sacrament—without all of these things, we become, like Julia, faceless automatons simply marking time in a series of meaningless pursuits. What is most ghastly, though, is that for many of our countrymen, this represents the “good life.”
This, also, is why we have to turn to a fictional character, to Julia, for our hero for sloth, to return to the opening point of this essay. One of the lies Evil always tells us is that if we just do this thing, if we just commit this sin, it will add something to us, we’ll be happier. In fact, sin is a subtraction, a negation of some aspect of our self as God created us to be. And this is particularly true of the sin of sloth, which tells us not to do something; not to recognize Creator and Creation and thereby not recognize we are “fearfully and wonderfully” made (Ps. 139). The Modern Sloth reaches his full potential in Julia—a faceless, boring (and undoubtedly, bored) non-entity undeserving of the appellation “great” even when it comes to her sin.
Much has been written about “The New Evangelization.” Isn’t this, at least in its American context, the crux of the matter? Evangelization means to “spread the Good News.” And isn’t the Gospel (the Good News) that we have to spread the Truth that God became Man and freed us from sin so that we might have life, and have it more abundantly? The Good News is that we can aspire to a life far richer, far deeper, far more complex, far more abundant than the creators of “Julia” can possibly imagine. The creators of Julia have almost painstakingly shown us the self-immolation of Man without God which comes through modern sloth. Thus, as we proceed apace with the New Evangelization, Julia provides the anti-type for just what we were created to be. She starkly portrays the endpoint of the progressive secularists’ project. She is the “bad news,” to our Good News.