As I’ve been making dinner this week, I’ve been listening to an NPR investigative series into televangelists and their millions, almost none of which, it turns out, are scrutinized by the IRS or anybody else for that matter. And thus, in April, I’ve been brought back to where, in January, I began the semester with my students in a course on Catholic social teaching: looking at oleaginous characters such as Joel Osteen, Marcus and Joni Lamb, Kenneth Copeland and others whose television shows have morphed into massive multimillion-dollar broadcasting networks raking in profits while preaching the heresy of the “prosperity gospel.” It truly has been a Lenten penance to watch these shady operators on Youtube.
I had never encountered most of them before December of last year, until reading an article in the New York Times discussed the death of Paul Crouch, a vulgar parvenu and founder of Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network. I read of Couch’s lavish lifestyle with a kind of horrified fascination, much as one cannot look away from a car wreck on the side of the road.
I used Osteen, Crouch and others as “foils” for a newly re-designed course this semester in Catholic social teaching. I contrasted their “theology” of health and wealth, of prosperity and success, with that of outstanding figures in Catholic history. Alongside discussing documents from Rerum Novarum in 1890 down to the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, we also watched a series of films which exemplified, as I said to my students, how Catholic social teaching can ruin your (tidy, comfortable, quiet, bourgeois) life.
I didn’t undertake this comparison out of triumphalist posturing or to prove Flannery O’Connor right when she said that “snobbery is the Catholic sin.” Rather, I looked at all these people in order to ask: who is more faithfully reflecting the gospel and the Christian tradition of askesis? If you were a desert father or mother of the fourth century suddenly vaulted from your Egyptian cell to an American mega-church in 2014, featuring the preaching of Joel Osteen, would you think you had landed in a Christian church or not?
When I taught a variation of this course back in 2007, I was much more cautious than I am today, and took a much more “apologetic” route, trying to help everyone see that, really, when the Church says you should be ecologically sensitive, or against war, you can accept either position without reference to the theology and without disrupting your life much. If you don’t believe in God, you should still reuse your plastic bags or buy more efficient light bulbs because both acts are ultimately about saving you money, and who doesn’t want more money? I was, in other words, trying to help people see that Christian social teaching is really a form of enlightened bourgeois self-interest.
In the last few years, however, I’ve come to realize more and more that there is no escaping the fact that real Christianity, when lived out fully, makes you look like a weirdo, a misfit, and a loser in the eyes of many. At the same time, I’ve come to see more deeply than I had previously just how much of Christianity in North America is held hostage by bourgeois categories and expectations which hide from us the strange, appalling, and radical demands of the gospel. Part of my change of heart comes from having recently published a chapter on the “holy fools” in both the Christian East and West—people like St. Symeon Salos, St. Basil the Fool, St. Xenia of Petersburg, and St. Francis of Assisi, who did not hide from the radical demands of following Christ and serving the poor. (My chapter, if you are interested, is in a new book edited by Marc DePaolo, Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, 2013).
If professors shield their students, or priests their parishioners, from realizing just how “extreme”—to use today’s favored epithet with which to demonize one’s enemies—the gospel is when it comes to questions of poverty, sickness, violence, justice, and peace, we do nobody any good. To help my students understand how radical the gospel is, and how at odds it is with the health-and-wealth cult here in America, we spent this semester looking at five people in particular, all of whom were denounced as “radicals” or “extremists” in both their day and our own: St. Damian of Molokai; St. Gianna Molla; St. Thomas More; Archbishop Oscar Romero; and Dorothy Day.
I chose all five because each of them illustrates a radical living out of some part of Catholic social teaching, and a refusal to “go along to get along”. None of them is content with politically-correct compromises. St. Damian shows us the costs of genuinely and totally caring for the sick and the outcast not just as a tidy “professional” but as one of them; St. Gianna shows us the cost of following a complete and exception-less defense of unborn life; St. Thomas More shows us the cost of defending not only the Church’s teaching on marriage, but also the freedom of the Church from political interference by organs of the state; Archbishop Romero shows us the costs of defending the poor from, and denouncing the violence of, thuggish oligarchs; and Dorothy Day shows us the controversies attendant upon defending laborers (especially in unions), fighting against war, and serving the poor in a country like the United States.
Are we all called to be like these five? Should every one of us prepare to gird up our loins to die as martyrs or to die a medically horrifying death? My students asked these intelligent and challenging questions, and I responded by noting that the Church, in her wisdom, has always urged us to pray for peace, for protection from violence and tyranny, and for the health and well-being of all. But in some cases, God allows people to pay the ultimate price for the defense of truth, and these people are, and must always remain, a constant thorn in our side to keep us from the allurements of complacency and self-satisfaction, which seem endemic in America Christianity and deeply corrupting in ways many of us scarcely fathom.
At the same time, however, I remind my students that God wants everybody “to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4),including the rich and the powerful. And here I introduce one final character who doesn’t jive with the other five—a misfit of a different sort: St. Helena, dowager empress of the Roman Empire who, we’re told, used her wealth and power to find the true Cross and to achieve true sanctity without being corrupted by her post of honor. To be rich, powerful, and holy is a very rare feat indeed—truly heroic virtue not embodied, so far as I can see, by any televangelist. As the great Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh, author of the wonderfully funny and edifying historical novel Helena, said of his title character: “Her sanctity [was] in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry, she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.”
As we enter the final days of Lent before gazing once more on that crucified loser and political misfit, Jesus Christ, may we all seek ever more deeply to discover God’s will and to do it.