Archive for January 21st, 2013

Saint Anthony Abbot, 16th century.  Museo Ciocesano, Venice.

Saint Anthony Abbot, 16th century. Museo Diocesano, Venice.

Is Faith a Freak Show?

For anyone who’s seen Amish Mafia, the January 5th review in The Washington Post summed it up succinctly. “Discovery Channel’s new reality show is really so awful that it doesn’t deserve to be on television.” It went on to claim that the program “turns faith into a freak show,” which it certainly seems to do. The viewing of even one episode is enough to upend your impressions of this peace-loving agrarian folk.

If the series is indeed “reality,” as it purports, then the Amish seem not so pure and innocent after all. The show implies that, left to their own devices, the Amish would quickly slide into a spiral of hard-partying, hard-drinking, hard-fighting mayhem. Compounding this natural tendency to go feral is a governing structure that confers on the church elders a rather benign spiritual authority, but no coercive power. To the community’s relief, then, the Amish Mafia has stepped in to fill the void. And so, while the elders wink and look the other way, the hoodlums use their muscle and intimidation to keep the latent barbarians from going over the edge.

photoBut is this portrait a true reflection of the character of the Amish? I think not, and I’m guessing that most Amish would agree. In any society there are rotten apples, and the Amish are not exempt. But the exceptions, no matter how many, never prove the rule; and I would bet the bank that a few naughty Amish do not represent the entire community.

The fact that the producers of Amish Mafia wagered that there was a market for this sort of drivel says a lot about us. We’re all curious about groups that live apart, and that is doubly so for groups that are religious. We’re especially curious about communities that set high-minded standards for themselves; and truth be told, we take secret delight when they fall from grace. In short, the producers, and their sponsors, knew there would be a ready audience for this kind of junk, and their job is to deliver what we deserve to see.

Museo Diocesano, formerly convent of Sant' Apollonia, Venice.

Museo Diocesano, formerly convent of Sant’ Apollonia, Venice.

There are lots of reasons why we savor the fall of the mighty. For one, it builds up our sagging self-esteem when we discover that others are no better than we. It also takes us off the hook from following through on our own lofty ideals. After all, if others can’t or won’t do the right thing, then why should we? And it eases our own guilt when we can point out that others are far worse than we. Adam was on to something when he blamed Eve, and no doubt he felt a lot better for having done so. And Eve was a quick study when she passed the blame on to the serpent. Surprisingly, the serpent seemed more than willing to take the credit, because he had just seen Adam and Eve make a mockery of their integrity.

Sant' Apollonia, arcade.

Sant’ Apollonia, arcade.

But sin is always more complicated than we like to think, and the miscreants in Amish Mafia are an exceptionally good case in point. We like to think that most sin is victimless, but rarely is it so. In this case, there is the hurt visited upon the friends and family of the do-badders. They have to be absolutely mortified. Then there is the impact on the larger community. All seem tarnished by the antics of a few, whether they should be or not. And finally there is the disillusion that grips those who look to the Amish for a glimmer of hope in a world gone wild. What of them?

I have to take serious issue with the Post‘s contention that Amish Mafia makes a freak show of faith. Ironically, it does quite the opposite, because it demonstrates what can happen when we check our faith at the door. To my way of thinking Amish Mafia is not about faith and how it ruins your life. It’s more precisely about what happens when you abandon a faith-filled life and throw caution to the wind. With little or nothing to anchor you, you had better come up with something equally good. Absent that, you run the risk of slipping below the animals on the nobility scale.

photoThere’s one other minor quibble that I have with the Post‘s review, and it has to do with its allegation that the show is “so awful that it doesn’t deserve to be on television.” Really? Is there such a show? That one I have a very difficult time believing.

Right now you can find pretty much any and everything on television, and each show claims that this is what “reality” is all about. Like the demon who whispers from his perch on our shoulders, the screen arrays the alternatives in glory before us. So far, most of what I’ve seen on television makes a mockery of the alternatives to faith. So far, there’s little that I’ve seen that would entice me to throw off my faith and trade it in to embrace “reality.”

photoVarious Notes

+During the past week I spent several days in Palm Springs, CA, visiting alumni and friends of Saint John’s. That was the easy part. On my return I discovered that the weather had turned decidedly chilly in Minnesota, and to my dismay the windows on my car were frozen shut at the airport parking lot. The day before I had left I had made the fateful choice of a clean car over a filthy car. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the cardinal rule that Minnesota drivers ignore at their peril: never run your car through the car wash late in the afternoon with an impending cold front on the way. Everything will freeze up on you. Happily, the parking attendant smiled knowingly when I had to open the door to pay the fee. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen that.

+On January 18th Fr. Luke Steiner, OSB, passed away peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 82. I recall Fr. Luke best as a teacher of New Testament, and while in seminary I took his course on the Gospel of John. Through the years he taught courses both at Saint John’s and in Jerusalem, and in later years he served as a chaplain to the Poor Claires in Sauk Rapids, MN.

photo+On January 17th we celebrated the feast of Saint Anthony Abbot (ca. 251-356). Variously known as Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, and Anthony of the Desert, he left behind his family’s wealth at the age of eighteen to become a hermit, and still later he ministered to the sick and imprisoned in Alexandria. Shortly after Anthony’s death, Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, wrote his Life of Anthony, which became highly influential in sparking the monastic movement in the West. Today, in Italy especially, he is revered as the patron and protector of animals; and on his feast day farmers bring their animals to Saint Peter’s Square for a blessing. What a mess.

+I am currently reading Bernini: His Life and His Rome, by Franco Mormando (University of Chicago Press, 2011). This is geared for the general reader, and I’ve found the book extremely interesting. It is a must-read for anyone who intends to do a tour of Baroque Rome, as well as for anyone who is the least bit interested in life in Rome in the 17th century.

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