Monday, July 3, 2006

C'mon Baby, Don't Fear the Jedi

People bemoan the state of modern society. They lament the seeming stranglehold that secularism, modernism, relativism, pop culture, and ... yes, a new paganism seem to have on our hearts. At times it can seem overwhelming and ... let's admit it ... a bit hopeless.

Let's see how St. Gregory the Great, pope from 590 to 604, instructed St. Augustine of Canterbury when he was faced with similar circumstances in Britain.
To his most beloved son, the Abbot Mellitus:

Gregory, the servant of the servants of God.

We have been much concerned, since the departure of our congregation that is with you, because we have received no account of the success of your journey. When, therefore, almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, vis., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.

And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.

For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavors to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet he allowed them the use of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the devil, in his own worship; so as to command them in his sacrifice to kill beasts, to the end that, changing their hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another, that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices.

This it behooves your affection to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being there present, may consider how he is to order all things.

God preserve you in safety, most beloved son.
This comes via Grail Code where the authors go on to point out that this practical advice is also quite tolerant and understanding of human nature.
The people are used to coming to certain places for worship so let them continue -- but to worship the true God, not pagan idols. The people love their traditional feasts, so keep the feasts -- and use them as opportunities to celebrate the new faith. The very things the people enjoy most about their pagan traditions can be the means of leading them to Christ.
Not only does that give us good information to use when people bring up the fact that Christian holidays are often held at the same time as previous pagan ones, but it gives us a wonderful insight of practical application of that old saw "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar."

Hard upon the heels of reading the above excerpts, I came across Rod Bennet's wonderful talk about the new mythology that is arising from pop culture.
Well, here in the 21st century we really are witnessing the birth of a new mythology. A popular, media-based mythology just as elaborate as that of the Greeks and the Romans -- and for many people (not just kids) it serves the same semi-religious function in life. I'm talking, of course, about the rise--to an almost central role in the lives of our young people--of fantasy films, video games, and literature in our culture.

Most of you spend time with children or teenagers on a regular basis. So I'm sure you know by now, that large continuing fantasy sagas like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pokemon and so forth are a major part of cultural discourse these days. Each of these sagas has its own elaborate backstory, it's own body of arcane knowledge, and our kids have made mastering the minutiae of their chosen discipline into something like a private devotion. Anthropologically speaking, it's an amazing thing to watch--and certainly something those of us involved in raising children today ought to be talking about.
That excerpt is just the tip of the iceburg in a wonderful series of posts that touches on modern icons like Superman and Spiderman, modern mythologists like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and ... wait for it ... the Holy Spirit crying to modern hearts from the splinters of light contained in pop culture.
Secondly, we need not despise nor fear "the Jedi religion"--any more than St. Justin despised Platonism. As Justin did, we can respect it, even enjoy it--without actually believing in it. We need constantly to remember that our students, our friends, our neighbors are not turning to things like "the Jedi religion--out of perversity or sheer cussedness...they struggle along on these thin hopes because they have, for whatever reason, despaired of any rational religious hope. Possibly they've never heard the Christian Gospel at all. Also: the multiplicity of competing, contradictory sects in America is enough to make anyone conclude that it's all just human opinion...nonsense. And the Church's own shortcomings contribute to this. We ourselves make the Faith hard to believe--every time we leave a scandal uncorrected, an abuse unreformed. These modern myths are not so much rivals to the true Faith as very imperfect substitutes for it. Stop-gap measures. And if no Christian ever comes to shepherd these longings to a happier conclusion--whose fault is that? Certainly not the poor pagan's...struggling along with his "conflicting thoughts." Our attitude should be that of Chesterton: "[The mythmaker does not speak] with the voice of a priest or a prophet saying 'These things are.' It is the voice of a dreamer and an idealist crying, 'Why cannot these things be?'
Please do go read all five of these posts. The New Gods, Romance Is Religion, Good Dreams, The God-Shaped Vacuum, and Conclusion. I think you will find it well worth your time. (Via Way of the Fathers.)

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