Monday, June 29


Scrounging for the Sacred

Perhaps I'm not the only one, but my first reaction upon hearing that Michael Jackson had died of a heart attack was, "Wow, how weird," hardly a marker of Christian compassion. I felt a bit bad about this, but I said a brief prayer, and got on with things. Jackson was a deeply disturbing individual, for sure, but the creepy folks in the world need our prayers, too. So I figured that was that.

However, the matter came back to mind when I ran cross a nice little post on the First Things "First Thoughts" blog, linking the cult of celebrity that explains Jackson--and Princess Di, and La Hilton, and all the rest--with the curious case of "Saint" Guinefort, a valiant greyhound who defending a child from a snake, and got killed by his master for his trouble. The animal somehow managed to acquire a sort of popular, unapproved folk-cultus after death, until a local Dominican put a stop to this charmingly sentimental nonsense.

Popular devotion, it must be admitted, has netted quite a few great saints in its time--nearly everyone in the martyrology who lived before the turn of the last millenium owes his halo to a popular canonization that persisted due to the Chestertonian democracy of the dead, but such hauls also frequently included a lot of very odd and eminently forgettable people: some who were quite pious, if probably fictional, such as the baby Rumwold, who preached a sermon after his baptism and promptly died; Muirghein, who was turned into a mermaid for 600 years and appears to be a figment of Celtic imagination; or Josaphat, who appears to be a thinly-Christianized version of Buddha (considering some Buddhist sects appropriated the imagery of Christ on a white horse from Revelation, it's a fair trade).

Others were not so holy. The "martyr" Gotteshalk was killed in battle, and San Simon de Guatemala (a relatively rare instance of a post-medieval popular cultus) was actually a French revolutionary. And some, we've not got a clue. St. Amadour was some guy whose body they found quite randomly; admittedly incorrupt, but one does wonder.

For all our talk of romantic decentralization in the early Church, it's a good thing infallible Rome took over the process during the Middle Ages to make sure all the i's were dotted and t's crossed. (That being said, I am not letting Rome off the hook for crossing Sts. Ursula, Catherine, Barbara, et al., off the list, because a) being absurdly beautiful princesses holding all sorts b) given their veneration has stood at the heart of Christendom for ages, unlike some marginal greyhound or garbled French philosopher, we can be assured that someone upstairs was picking up the phone when we pray to them even if it might be a wrong number. But Catherine's Catherine and a three-day-old talking baby is another.)

We see some of this indiscriminate, if heartfelt, scrounging for the sacred, in today's cult of celebrity, as well. And in it, a lost opportunity for us, as Richard Scott Nokes notes in his piece:
In both cases, the cults were propelled by two engines: the ignorance of the people, and the desire to venerate. As with the angels, we are created as creatures of praise. We seem to be hardwired to praise something, to worship anything. Just as we will eat rotten food and filthy water if no healthy food and clean water are available, we will venerate dogs and celebrities if we see no truly worthy objects of veneration before us.

Etienne’s effort to stamp out the cult of Guinefort failed because he did not address the need of the people to venerate. Their impulse was good; it was simply directed at the wrong object and without providing a new object for veneration, Etienne was dooming the people of Sandrans to eventually drift back to their old ways.

It does the Church little good to cluck and shake our heads at the dismaying display of veneration for Michael Jackson, for in truth he is a martyr, a martyr to our culture’s true god: Celebrity. If we simply cut down Celebrity’s Asherah poles—John & Kate, Paris Hilton, Barack Obama—we leave the job half-completed, ensuring new idols will spring up in their place. If we take away rotten food and filthy water, we must replace it with healthy meat and milk. The worship of false saints, be they greyhounds or pop stars, needs to be replaced by the worship of the Lord. As the Philistines found with their idol Dagon, false idols cannot stand in the face of the one true Lord (1 Sam 5:2-5).
Once again, everything can be a call to conversion. Let's not blow it again, this time.

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