It's funny how every Holy Week, the poor ad-starved newsweeklies "get religion" for their cover stories. This year, Newsweek tries to stir the pot with a dire red-on-black headline: "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." One hears the editor add hopefully, in the spirit of Coffee Talk: "Discuss amongst yourselves."
The article is a muddled but earnest attempt to knit together the recent modest statistical downturn in "self-identified Christians" (and upturn in agnostics and atheists) with the political becalming of the so-called Religious Right, Christopher Hitchens, Obama, and, probably, the declining fertility of the Easter Bunny. As a "self-identified" New York City Catholic, I can't say this is exactly my story; some of my most faithful Christian friends tend to be social-justice liberals who cock a worried eyebrow at my scary pro-life sentiments. But the larger question--whether we're now a "post-Christian nation"--has the whiff of timeliness to it, and not just because today is Good Friday.
How "post-Christian" are we? Well, just in the past few years, "post" enough for Jesus to have slipped several major notches in the cultural canon. Yes, we've been pretty hard to shock for several decades now, but there's a new frat-boy casualness to mocking Our Lord. Some of it really is funny, if you already consider Jesus your friend and not above a little ribbing. I'm personally fond of the Jesus Action Figure from Archie McPhee (left), put to good use by LOLcats (right).
Elsewhere, the Lord has been popping up more frequently as an icon of mere nuttiness, unmoored from the scholarly ballast that made Monty Python's Life of Brian so sharp and even perversely reverent. He's been rocked by Steve Coogan and Jack Black; reverence-wise, He's edging into becoming just another "character" in the Hallowe'en-costume pantheon at Party City. (Somehow, I blame Xenu, the first truly ludicrous modern deity, for at least a small part of this ribald relativism.) I don't watch "Family Guy," but a few weeks ago I flipped past as they sent up Christ as a wine-pouring sleazy playboy. These days, I guess that sort of thing doesn't merit a whimper, much less a boycott.
Of all days, today is one of reassurance. Because that's how He ended His life, before taking it up anew: as just a man among other men, kicked to the ground and jeered at. His own friends had vanished in cowardice; snark ruled the day, from the elegant musing of Pilate ("What is truth?") to the testosterone-fueled antics of the soldiers. It's only in medieval art or modern cinema that we can cue the halo or the sanctifying lighting. On the real Good Friday, He must have looked like hell, and the memory of His brief glory days must have seemed like a mortal embarrassment to all but the women who were with Him to the end. (Apparently, they didn't give a rat's ass about the three-hour-old post-Christian era.)
Maybe a "Christian America," whatever that looked like (or would have looked like in its conservative dream-state), makes things too easy for us. He was never about triumphalism. He was about being recognized, by one heart at a time, dead or alive again.
"If, at the moment of our death, death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ also has always been to us an unwelcome stranger. For when death comes, Christ comes also, bringing us the everlasting life which he has bought for us by His own death."
--Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island
Fra Angelico, Lamentation over the Dead Christ