Our culture has lost its faith in Christ. It has lost a Bible. But it still does its daily devotional reading.
Repetition is one of the outstanding features of practicing religion. You repeat prayers, chants, cycles, readings, parables, hymns, and stories. You repeat them in order to remember them. You repeat these things until they seem like unintelligible background noise. And then suddenly, they are repeated one more time and what was noise, or routine, suddenly buds forth with a beautiful revelation about your life and circumstances.
I seem to mark the years of middle age by the summer Sunday when the Church calendar comes to the miraculous catch of fish, and Peter falls on his knees, “Depart from me, Lord, for I’m a sinful man.” I’ve been there, man.
You repeat things until you learn them “by heart.” The meaning of Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan seems pretty straightforward: Do unto others. The priests and other supposedly good Jews will use the law and their prejudices to excuse themselves from helping their fellow man. But then a dirty foreigner comes and does the godly thing. But you keep repeating it, year after year, so that when the time is right, you can recognize yourself as the hypocritical priest, or as the victim on the side of the road experiencing mercy from an unexpected source, or until you see your opportunity to be the Good Samaritan.
The Scriptures work by typology. You repeat things because the authors leave associations in the Scripture to reveal more meaning to you. The Ark of the Covenant is brought before David, to be with him for three months. King David dances. When Mary is pregnant with Jesus and visits her cousin Elizabeth for three months, the unborn John the Baptist dances in Elizabeth’s womb. The association tells you something about the identity of Jesus; he’s the new Covenant. It tells you about Mary, who is compared to the Ark of the Covenant in Revelation.
This is how humans think and reason: liturgically. We read things repetitively, say things repetitively, and experience things repetitively — and by doing so we train our heart, our gut, and our mind to react a certain way as our lives unfold.
And it doesn’t stop just because you stopped going to church. Despite many commentators pretending that America is a very religious country in Western civilization, the vast majority of people here don’t go to a church or synagogue or other house of worship in any given week.
And even for the people who do go to church, their “liturgical life” is still mostly made up of modern mass media: television, film, news websites, etc.
Last year, when the Brett Kavanaugh nomination ran into controversy, scores of writers convicted Kavanaugh based on their remembered experience of a completely different set of characters, and a completely different school. They wrote quite sincerely that their experiences “shed light” on this other situation. They had a parable in their heads, something they had meditated on for years. They’d seen it replicated in popular films. It was true. Just like the Duke Lacrosse rape was “true” and the Rolling Stone article about the UVA gang rape was true. This is what jocks are.
Similarly, the leading culture writer at BuzzFeed “recognized” something in the Smirking Kid in a MAGA Hat. In an epic and widely shared Tweet thread, she pronounced this boy was a “type” of person:
One theme of the conversations over the past 24 hours = how deeply familiar this look is. It’s the look of white patriarchy, of course, but that familiarity — that banality — is part of what prompts the visceral reaction. This isn’t spectacular. It’s life in America. pic.twitter.com/TmziDwAjYA
— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) January 21, 2019
The thread went on to describe how this type of person — which she recognized just from a single photograph — acts in high school, and college, and how this person acts with women. She recalled the personal slights she had received from this type. But the type wasn’t just something that reminded her of unpleasantness, it was archetypical of entire structures of oppression. The smirking MAGA boy is the boy who insulted me: He is every misbehaving boy, and every misbehaving man, and every form of historical oppression too.
Just as every sin, no matter how slight, makes the sinner a participant in the Crucifixion of Christ, so too is every smirking boy the patriarchy, the one that has personally crucified the culture writer for BuzzFeed.
Our culture has lost its faith in Christ. It has lost a Bible. But it still does a deep exegesis. Our clerical class does its daily devotional reading, it chants its moralizing passages, it experiences incredible transfigurations. The newsfeed makes up the liturgical calendar. The stories are all deeper iterations of stories we know before. The culture writers can mark their middle-aged years by the appearance of the prep-school villain, the one with whom they are so intimately familiar.