Monday, June 22, 2009

O, Peter Steinfels ...

... you've done it again. Your columns in the Times are often the most interesting thing we read about religion all week, at least in a secular publication. You are a sharp observer of Romish events, and even if you occasionally seem a little fuzzier when dealing with other religious traditions, we still race through the front page section a bit until we hit your byline.

And last Saturday, you outdid yourself. Surely you remember -- it was your response to Jillian, who e-mailed you from Marie Claire, the fashion magazine, breathlessly promoting the current issue, which includes

... accounts by 'five modern career gals' of 'how their belief in faith helped them through the hardest of struggles.'

You quickly signaled the most problematic part of the story:

The article is titled “Cheaper Than Therapy.”

Oh, there were other problems. Several of the women don't seem all that devout -- the Jew eats pork, the Catholic claims to be "recovering," (and still seems surprised that her parish priest isn't an ogre). The whole religion-as-therapy angle is tired and misleading. And, although you didn't mention it, "belief in faith" is a strange expression. We at the Egg believe in thousand-dollar bills, but that doesn't mean we possess any, or that they do us much good.

But "cheaper than therapy." Ah, now there's a phrase we hope we never hear again. And we expect that the clergy of many religions will say "Amen."

First, the therapy: it's not what we do. Oh, a few may, perhaps -- those who are trained as psychotherapists. And, lamentably, a few others may pretend to, using expressions like "pastoral counseling" more broadly than is wise -- or ethical. (Those people should be avoided like the plague, by the way).

And second, the "cheap": it's not what we are. Or, at least, it oughtn't be. You make the obligatory reference to Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace," although it seems a bit off-point here. But then you come back, roaring, with this remark to Jillian and the team at Marie Claire:

[The word "cheap"] doesn’t appear a lot elsewhere in these pages. This is not to complain about the items surrounding your article about the effect of today’s hard economic times on our sense of hope — the $4,100 skirt or the $4,995 dress or the $1,250 clutch or the $315 diamond-dust-based body treatment at one spa or the $250 head-to-toe feng shui scrub-down and massage at another.

And perhaps you're not complaining, but we are. Because the underlying gimmick of the article (or at least its offensive title) is that the overindulged can find in religion a less costly alternative to one more of their indulgences. And that's just nonsense.

What the overindulged will find in religion -- virtually any religion, except Scientology and the Prosperity Gospel -- is a challenge to their indulgence. A regular churchgoer may very well want to own a $4,100 skirt; she may even have one in her closet somewhere. From a Christian perspective, there's nothing inherently wrong with beautiful and extravagant things, and much that is right with them. But in church, she will find herself challenged, over and over, to explain how the aesthetic beauty of that skirt is greater than the moral beauty of an equally lavish gift to the poor, or to the other ministries of the church.

She will find that there was indeed a cost to her churchgoing -- not necessarily a financial one (although hope springs eternal in the clerical breast), but certainly an emotional and intellectual cost, as she was asked to reconsider her entire system of values.

And we're saying "church," here, but believe us that there are other religious communities in which the challenge would be phrased more sharply still. Orthodox Jews don't dress that way because they have no taste; they dress that way because they have a commitment to modesty. And does Jillian even want to talk about Buddhist non-attachment? Too much of that would wreck her business model.


Anonymous said...

My, my, this was just lovely. I usually turn to the Egg for stiffer fare, but this was simply beautiful. Thanks. web

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Well, whatever gets them in the door. Or maybe not.

I like your take on what we are supposed to be hearing in church. But we don't have ears...

Diane said...

love this, even though I didn't read the original...