Almost Holy: Confessions of a Bad Catholic

God and Garden State

Last weekend, wending my way through North Jersey for a holiday barbeque at my cousin’s house, I indulged yet again in one of my exceptionally odd habits and pulled up a moment-specific set of music on my iPod.

I know I’m not alone in this. Case in point: the continued obsession with Bon Jovi among people who went through high school in the mid-‘80s. These thirty-somethings have screamed the chorus to “Livin’ on a Prayer” 800,000 times each and will continue to do so—despite how ridiculous it looks—even though the band’s frontman owns an arena-football team and ain’t been livin’ on a prayer for decades.

Music and Memory

The moral of the story, though—besides the fact that Bon Jovi fans are crazy—is that music calls up memories of a time and place, probably more so than any other medium. So whether it’s Bon Jovi, the old Italian songs my grandmother learned as a child and still sings in quiet moments to remind her of her homeland, or the soundtrack to Garden State – which marked my long, slow passage up the Parkway to Montclair –songs have the ability to evoke memory and meaning, even over decades.

Admittedly, the aforementioned 2004 film, much of which was shot along my route of travel, is one of my favorites. And in many ways, my inner film scholar opines that it was one of the most catholic movies ever produced. Not just because Jersey Italian Danny DeVito was the money behind it, either.

For all the barriers being broken down through technology or new advances in the realms of the sciences or social progress, other walls are going up: between people, generations and, more than just sometimes, within ourselves. Considering the pressures that come with being made to believe that it’s “Me Against the World,” it’s easy to be drawn into thinking that getting by has to be more difficult than it actually is.

For all of us who, at some point or another, fell into that trap, along came Zach Braff and his semi-autobiographical story to remind us twentysomethings of something powerful, something we weren’t always reminded of along the way: that we’re not alone.

Communion Across Lines

To put it in theological terms, what sprung from that awareness was a manifestation of communion among a generation across all kinds of lines. And for those of us who got to be a part of that experience, it left an indelible mark. (Full disclosure: during its release, I saw it five times…and cried five times.)

In its own way, for those of us who resonated with it—including many who had never felt any soul-stirring inclinations before—this story of a Jewish kid from North Jersey who is stuck in a haze of antidepressants and frustrated with his life as a struggling actor/waiter in LA served as an unlikely spiritual boost.

Garden State brought a lot of wandering souls together and gave us a rare and uplifting dose of what another of my favorite pics (Beautiful Girls) called “the greatest commodity known to man – promise,” it was a testament to the virtues that Catholicism has trumpeted for two millennia: the simple power of faith, hope and love.

Garden State brought a lot of wandering souls together and gave us a rare and uplifting dose of what another of my favorite pics (Beautiful Girls) called “the greatest commodity known to man—promise,”

At least, these are things we’ve trumpeted in theory. As always, we’re still working on the practice.

Patron of Pop

The beauty of pop culture lies in its ability to perform the service of spiritual uplift without any of the “churchiness” that more than a few of us find inhibiting and a turn-off. It has filled the void left by the absence of the great patron of pop culture in earlier centuries: that is, the church.

Does it need to be this way? Not necessarily. Is it a bad thing? Again, not necessarily, as it provides an opening into people’s souls and gives organized religion a standard to shoot for in its own engagement with the world. The problem happens when the church gets complacent and the clarion call it should heed gets ignored. When we—as people of a faith that calls us to truly embrace the world—don’t allow ourselves to learn from it and be moved by it with everything we’ve got, then we are ignoring an enormous piece of God’s goodness.

By and large, that’s where we are. That it’s gotten to this point is less a commentary on the power of pop culture than the church’s ability (or, rather, lack thereof) to be creative and actually touch broad swaths of twenty- and thirtysomethings (and beyond) where they live. It is our job, after all, to let the world know that, indeed, within the embrace of the fold of the faithful, there’s a place for every one of us—and that, if anything, that’s not something to fear, but to seek.

So, if Braff and Bono can do it, you might be asking yourself, why can’t Jesus? After all, though I love U2, no healings are performed at their concerts.

First Truth

One of my friends has a great saying. Whenever he hears about the petty fights that break out in parishes, exorbitant nothings different church entities blow people’s hard-earned money on, or the latest machinations behind-the-scenes over in Rome, he just sighs and says, simply, “For this, Jesus died.”

For all the beauty of Catholic culture—its life, prayer, teachings and ethics—we’ve let languish the first truth: like any good movie or soul-shattering song, all this begins and ends in the movement of one solitary life. A life that was, in many ways, little different from our own, despite the passage of 2000 years.

The title of Ziggy Marley’s latest release might just put the heart of Christianity, of Catholicism best: “Love Is My Religion.” No less than Pope Benedict, after all, has been powerfully reminding the world that God is love. Our job is to make that message come alive, not in another time and space, but in our own here and now.

Again, that’s something true in theory. We’re still working on the practice. And we’ve got a ton of work to do.