Sunday, April 27, 2014

THE EDGE OF SADNESS: VAUDEVILLE ANTICS IN THE CHURCH

DETAIL, HEAD OF CHRIST, c. 1648-56
REMBRANDT
I'M GOING TO GET TO SEE THIS PAINTING IN A FEW WEEKS
AT THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART

Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1962. I can't say I was crazy about the book. But in one stellar passage the protagonist, Fr. Hugh Kennedy, reflects on another priest, a TV personality who would whistle: first, say a "grand old favorite song such as 'There is a Long Long Trail A-Winding,'  a popular song of the moment, such as 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,' then let us say the Ave Maria."

He had a religious schtick, in other words. And as is still true today of such antics--on which there are many variations, some of which I'm sure I've been guilty of myself--people "loved" him.

"All roads lead to Rome. So they do, or so I hope, but I have my doubts about the highway of the Whistling Priest: that is, I wouldn’t think it led much of anywhere. I’ve always disliked and mistrusted this carnival shill approach to the Church—and yet heaven knows we see it often enough. Does it really work? I don’t think so, but more than that I think it’s all wrong. Because for one thing it’s so unworthy. I don’t mean by this that it’s too informal, too much in the market place, too “popular”; I do mean, quite simply, that it’s cheap. obviously when you talk about such things as God, religion, the church, man’s soul, to a great many different people, you much necessarily do so in a great many different ways and on a great many different levels. But none of these levels can be—or at least none of them should be—in any sense flashy or false or vulgar, because if they are—no matter what the apparent justification—you run the very serious risk of making God, religion the church, and man’s soul seem just a little bit of the same. It’s all very well to suggest that this really doesn’t matter so much, that what does matter is that, as a result, the people come in, but I think that’s a great mistake. I know they come in---and often in considerable numbers—in response to such techniques. That’s not surprising. The gaudy, the meretricious, frequently have a powerful and immediate seductiveness: at a fair or a circus, the children invariably make a beeline for those horrible puffs of pink candy. But what is surprising is that we sometimes take comfort from this: I know priests, for example, who will point with great pride to statistics proving the value of such appeals. So many appeals, so many souls for God: Q.E.D. Of course what the statistics don’t do so well is measure the depth, the strength, and the duration of the faith of those who do come in—or in other words, they tell you absolutely nothing about the only thing that counts. And—still more—while there are all sorts of statistics to tell you how man souls these tactics have brought in, there are no statistics at all to tell you how many they have kept out. Who knows, for instance, who can guess the number of those who, with every sympathy, with every good will, have tentatively approached the Church only to be repelled by vaudeville antics at their first point of contact? As I say, we have no statistics for that at all; if we had, they might not be so comforting"….

--Edwin O’Connor, The Edge of Sadness


6 comments:

  1. Gimmickry is rampant, unfortunately, in all manner of ways.

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  2. This seems related to applauding at the end of Mass. An awful practice.

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  3. It's funny, or not really that surprising, but in a coincidental vein, at the meeting I attend (Quaker), we have the problem of people giving 'ministry' of a shallow sort, sometimes ego-driven and self-serving. All different people from all kinds of spiritual and nonspiritual backgrounds are drawn to attend, but few are knowledgeable on the sort of 'ministry' that is true Quaker faith in practice. It is thorny (no cheap pun intended).

    Especially because I also attend 12-step recovery meetings, where much the same problem exists (with "shares"). To be a good AA, a good Christian, a good fellow human being, forgiveness is indicated, and all kinds of freedom of speech v. censorship or censure issues rush in to inform and complicate this particular headache. Yet someone must be keeping track of how many steps back are taken to steps forward in all this, to make sure the direction hasn't been reversed.

    Harsh as it may be expressed, I really appreciate the sentiment in this excerpt, Heather. Thanks for posting it.

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  4. A proverb about receiving the criticism (even) of our enemies seems fitting. Alas for all my good bible oriented Protestant training I cannot place chapter and verse to it; I must be truly Catholic at last {wink}.

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  5. Teresa of Avila talks about that very thing in her book The Way of Perfection.

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  6. I thought this was about the singing nun at first.

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