The Church tried to conform itself to the world at a moment when the world was becoming uglier.
That sentence alone makes the conversation in Catholic journal First Things, between French author and atheist enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq, and Catholic conservative journalist Geoffrey Lejeune, worth the read.
It sums up the failed strategy of a faith that is desperate for love and acceptance, but is constantly despised for doing so by the very lover it is chasing.
Lejeune attends Mass every weekend. Houellebecq, no doubt, attends to himself every weekend in his nihilistic hedonistic fashion. As far as faith is concerned, they’re chalk and cheese.
But in this searingly bracing article, Restoration, both men point the finger at a twofold problem in the Catholic church in France; its craven desire to be like the world, and its self-defeating concession to retreat from the world. The world has invaded the church at the very time the church has quietly folded its wings and left the world.
Now by “uglier” Lejeune is talking aesthetics, first and foremost. He’s looking at the way in which the church in the sixties decided to “get jiggy with it” and ape the sexual revolution’s look, if not its practices. The result, however, has been a disaster:
The sacred was silently driven from the churches and replaced only with the cool, the festive—that’s great, but desperately human.
You can see something of our own Protestant forms of “cool and festive” in your mind’s eye as you read, can’t you? And it makes sense of those younger millennial Christians who are completely disinterested in church being like a rock concert. They can pay for that on Saturday night. What they want on Sunday is something that’s different, angular, as jarring to the ears of the world as the concert the night before would have been to the ears of their parents.
His killer line is this:
But the drama of style is that it goes out of style
Do we ever learn?
But Lejeune is not interested in art for art’s sake. He has no time for what he calls the “ultra-traditionalists” who insist on the old forms of worship for their own sakes. He sees that as an indulgent dead end. His concern is that the church is “desperately human”, meaning that everything of the transcendent seems to have been sucked out.
People desperate for something “more” are coming to the church and finding it just like the world. And when you’re living in late modernity, and in a France that thrives on material pleasure, but knows little of spiritual joy, then that’s a disaster. We’re living in an ugly autonomous world that is restless and rootless, and both men accuse the Church of falling in to line with that world.
Interestingly both Houellebecq and Lejeune had Pentecostal experiences in France when young. Houellebecq recounts his experiences with his usual bare honesty:
The memories I have of this are strange—I almost doubt having lived these moments. The people danced, sang at the top of their lungs, and sometimes spoke in tongues. I never had the feeling I was witnessing a collective delirium, or that I was in the midst of a cult. The sign of peace, reduced in Catholic Masses to a brief, irritated, and icy shake of the hand, gave way here to interminable warm hugs and kisses. And at the end of the celebration, we would share bountiful meals.
The man that writes so pornographically of fleeting, physically challenging sexual encounters that mimic intimacy but leave his subjects in despair, just knows that something is different here, doesn’t he? My French evangelical friend wrote a novel about Michel Houellebecq once, entitled Michel Houellebecq est Mort, and sent it to the great man, who approved! That it was the broken love story of a Protestant pastor in Paris, and his straying wife, may mean it simply ticked all of Houellebecq’s boxes.
Houellebecq’s work has been accused of being nihilistic and vulgar, but in a sense he’s bravely writing down on the page the very ugliness that Lejeune observes about the world. In a culture that will not hold the mirror of Scripture up to itself to see what it looks like, Houellebecq polishes a more opaque, less reflective, but nevertheless implacable bronze replacement, and holds it up to us, and we can scarcely look but feel compelled to. And we don’t like what we see, but it is true nonetheless.
Let’s not forget on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo magazine massacre in Paris in 2015, Houellebecq was on the front cover of that very day’s edition being pilloried by the magazine for the assertion in his new novel Submission (also published that same day), that Islam was on a collision course with French secularism.
What horrified the French was not the violence in his novel, because it wasn’t a hostile takeover. An enervated French ruling elite, devoid of any spiritual base that made life meaningful, sold their soul for a bowl of stew, and handed power over in exchange for unfettered access to the pleasures they had always known.
As a believer, though, it is Lejeune who has the most insight:
Perhaps the Church would regain some credibility if she stopped conceiving of herself as an NGO that is vaguely charitable but does not take responsibility for the source of its generosity: Christ.
I want to shout that to the rooftops, and certainly to strands of Protestantism that are tempted to take that same route, or indeed already have. But if you’re in a denomination that is increasingly tempted to scratch around for credibility by going loud on charity but sotto voce on the Source of all of that, then the future is there in France for you to see.
Everyone else can do everything else that we do, and there are many of those things we should do. But only we “do” Christ. And since Christ is the hope of the world, how about we stick with that in our increasingly despairing culture? The world has indeed become uglier. No sense in aping that ugliness or even trying to cover it up with makeup. We need the new creation that only Christ will bring.
As Lejeune observes:
There is a wound that ought to be treated by the Church: the wound of not knowing God, or of not knowing how to find him.
Once the Church herself does not know God or has misplaced Him so that she herself cannot find Him, then what else does the Church have to offer? Might as well shut shop.