Wednesday, August 6, 2014

House of Cards or another way of life: Americans have only two choices about how to live--we can be Postmodernists or we can be Catholic

Over the past couple of weeks, I have immersed myself in two outstanding works of fiction: House of Cards, the wildly popular television series about Washington politics; and Myles Connolly's elegant little novella entitled Mr. Blue.

Francis and Claire: Ruthless
Millions of people have watched House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright play Francis and Claire Underwood, an utterly ruthless political couple in Washington DC. Francis starts the series as the Congressional Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives but by late in the series he has schemed his way into the Vice President's Office. Claire ran a non-profit when the series began, but she gives that up to devote her life to full-time villainy.

As the series progresses from episode to episode, Francis and Claire throw just about every minor character under the bus. Francis frames an idealistic reporter and gets him thrown into federal prison. Claire betrays her former lover and leaves him publicly swinging in the wind. Francis murders an alcoholic Congressman named Peter Russo to help clear the way for Francis to become Vice President. And he shoves his old lover Zoe in front of a subway train.  Even Freddie, an elderly and lovable black guy who runs a barbecue joint in Columbia Heights, is totally destroyed because he became a pawn in Francis's international power game.

Interestingly enough, the power couple's names--Francis and Claire--evoke St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi--perhaps the most saintly of all Catholic saints. Saints Francis and Clare have remained famous over the centuries for their gentleness and their devotion to the poor. But modern-day Francis and Claire are the anti-St. Francis and the anti-St. Clare.  Indeed, most Christian viewers would probably view them as a sort of conjugal Antichrist.

The original Francis and Clare
Mr. Blue, which Myles Connolly published in 1928, is an entirely different kind of fictional work.  J. Blue, the protagonist, is a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi.  Like the original St. Francis, Blue walks away from a life of wealth and lives totally in the service of others.

Mr. Blue is a Catholic who fiercely declares that human life would be meaningless without Christ. "Without Christ," he tells a friend, "we would be little more than bacteria breeding on a pebble in space or glints of ideas in a whirling void of abstraction."

As the book ends, Blue is in a Boston hospital, where he is dying, worn down by a life of poverty and service to the others. Are you afraid of death, his friend asks him?  No, Blue replies, he has decided to "take a chance on God's mercy."

Blue has a keen sense of the glories of Catholic culture, which stands in opposition to the spirit of the age, and which he labels "scientific agnosticism."  "Scientific agnosticism is here for a long stay," Blue predicts, "because it is not a philosophy but a somewhat vainglorious state of mind."

Scientific agnosticism could not be  successfully opposed by reason or argument, Blue tells his friend, but only by another state of mind. And what I think Blue meant by that is that scientific agnosticism--what I would call postmodernism--can only be opposed by an entirely different kind of culture, a life-affirming culture that produces saints.

Today, most Americans are postmodernists; they are secularists, materialists and relativists.  They don't bother to call themselves atheists because they don't think enough about the existence of God to feel any need to declare themselves on the subject.  Most Americans--particularly affluent Americans educated in the nation's elite colleges and universities, are obsessed with power, recognition, and the accumulation of wealth.

In fact--a lot of us are well down the road to being Francis and Claire Underwood, the ruthless postmodernists who think about nothing but how to advance themselves.  I don't think many Americans would be willing to shove a young woman in front of a subway train as Francis Underwood did, even if they were educated at Harvard (where the ficional Francis Underwood went to law school). But a lot of Americans would betray a friend in an instant to move a little higher up the path to power.

No, there are very few Mr. Blues among us--very few saints. And if we were forced to locate our spiritual status on a sliding scale between Francis Underwood and Francis of Assisi, most of us would be much nearer the ruthless Congressman than the saint.

But, to be fair to everyone, we have few models to guide us toward the Catholic life.  There are many more Francis and Claire Underwoods in our society than Mr. Blues.

But let us at least look for models of wholesomeness; let us at least look for the flickering fires of Catholic culture and the joyous Catholic life.  And--I feel quite deeply--one of the best places to look is in the witness and writings of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  Dorothy and Peter lived smack in the middle of America's industrial economy and yet they committed their lives to building a society "where it would be easier to be good."

And when we reach the end of our lives, what will we be thinking about? Those of us who lived like Francis Underwood will probably be thinking about our vitae, our accomplishments, our baubles and awards. Perhaps we will be thinking in our last moments about old hurts and grudges.

And those of us who lived the Catholic life, what will we be thinking about? I think, like J. Blue, we will be thinking that we took a chance on God's mercy; and we will be at peace.

In our postmodern age, we have only two choices about how to live: We can live like Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards or we can try to be good Catholics.   Really, we only have two choices before us--only two.

Dorothy Day




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