The problem with the C.M.A.’s vision is to mistake the 1950’s idea of wholesomeness for the ideal shape of the Christian life. Faithfulness to the Gospel does not require wholesomeness. It requires holiness, as the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church teaches. Moreover, the two cannot be harmoniously related as the basic and advanced courses in Christian living. In fact, wholesomeness and holiness offer two different strategies for dealing with the brokenness of life in a fallen world.
The definition of wholesomeness in the reconstituted world of the 1950’s is first and foremost negative in character: no sex, no violence, no curse words. But there is a positive vision underlying this concatenation of noes. Wholesomeness understands itself as promoting physical order, moral order and social order. The noes are targeted at powerful sources of disorder disrupting the lives of individuals and communities. The human sex drive disrupts rational thought and common sense. Violence destroys the biological order of its victims, it corrupts the moral order of its perpetrators, and it corrodes the social order. Properly speaking, a curse disrupts the natural order by invoking a supernatural force.
Wholesomeness aims to counter disorder by creating a broad perception of safety and predictability. Wholesomeness enhances social reliance by encouraging parents to raise children to become stable members of society; it reinforces social stability by promoting clearly identifiable social roles; it boosts the existential comfort of individuals by surrounding them with others who also live well-ordered lives. Given its function, wholesomeness is intrinsically concerned with appearances. The appearance of disorder, particularly the face of undeserved suffering, can be dangerous. It can destabilize those who observe it by causing them to fear that they could suffer in the same way. It can also lead to destabilizing pressures for social change.
The importance wholesomeness places on appearances generates a hierarchy of values for living one’s life. The best scenario is to live in a way that both is good and appears to be good. Unfortunately, this can be achieved only by persons who have been blessed with a combination of good choices and good luck, not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those around them. But what if one or the other runs short? Unfortunately, bad luck and bad choices have a way of compounding each other. Suppose a father has the bad luck of having a daughter or son who made a bad choice and now faces an out-of-wedlock pregnancy? Suppose a mother has the bad luck of having married a man who abuses their daughter? What happens then?
In these situations, the culture of wholesomeness gives priority to appearances. From its perspective, a morally wrong choice that preserves proper appearances is better than a morally correct choice that exposes sin, sickness and suffering to public view. Secret sins, secret sorrows, do not destabilize things. And in fact, the wholesome culture of the 1950’s was maintained in part by illusion and deception. Hospitals and mental institutions hid physical and mental suffering, families concealed out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and religious communities covered up physical and sexual abuse.Christianity and Wholesomeness
If you type in the words wholesome atheistic on the Internet search engine Google, you get one hit. Wholesome Jewish pulls up about 40 responses. In contrast, a search for the phrase wholesome Christian yields over 1,300 results. So wholesomeness is somehow closely equated with Christianity. But if you look at Christianity’s origins, as recounted in the Gospels, wholesomeness is one of the last things that comes to mind.
As Luke tells it, the circumstances of the birth of Jesus were far from publicly respectable. For anyone not a party to the angel Gabriel’s conversation with Mary, it would have been difficult to believe that her pregnancy did not result from illicit sex. Although Gabriel set Joseph straight, he did not see fit to clear her name more generally. The Nativity story also fails wholesomeness’s mandate of nonviolence, as King Herod’s massacre of the innocents demonstrates. Finally, Jesus’ birth also traded in the same sort of cosmic danger entailed by the practice of cursing. Since Christians believe Jesus was divine as well as human, his entire existence entailed a radical disruption of the natural by the supernatural.
The course of Jesus’ public ministry did not take a wholesome path either. He fraternized with public sinners, including prostitutes and tax collectors. It is ironic that someone credited with inspiring 1950’s family values so uncompromisingly asked his disciples to relegate their wives and children to second place. And things did not end any better than they began: Jesus’ agony in the garden on Holy Thursday, his crucifixion, stripped of all dignity and set to die between two thieves, and his long ordeal punctuated by a despairing cry from the cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Wholesome, no. Redemptive, yes, as Easter Sunday shows. In conquering sin and death, Jesus did not keep himself at a safe distance from the chaos and destruction they cause. In fact, Hans Urs von Balthasar has even speculated that just as Jesus suffered one consequence of sin, death, on Good Friday, so he suffered the other consequence, damnation or alienation from God, throughout Holy Saturday.
So the process of redemption is immersed in the messiness of sinful human life. What about the results of redemption? Surely we can expect some relief here? No we cannot, at least if we pay attention to the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. When the Apostle Thomas did not recognize his master, Jesus invited him to put his hand into Jesus’ pierced side and to press his fingers into the nail wounds in Jesus’ hands. So the wounds themselves were not erased, but transfigured and glorified. The divine redemptive power does not distance itself from sin, violence and death, even as it triumphs over them.Holiness
If Christianity is not fundamentally about wholesomeness, what is it about? Holiness. The centrality of the Incarnation gives us a clue about how Christians might distinguish holiness from wholesomeness. Holiness is a response to the reality of embodied life. Wholesomeness, in contrast, is fundamentally an effort to sustain an illusion of what we would like it to be. The difference between them becomes clear when we consider two practices that are at the heart of Christianity: the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and the call to martyrdom.
Jesus told his disciples, Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me. But you cannot perform the corporal works of mercy without getting your hands dirty. You cannot feed the hungry, care for the sick, give shelter to the homeless or bury the dead without encountering repulsive sights and smells. And you cannot perform the spiritual works of mercy without being touched in your own heart by the misery in some lives. It is not just Mother Teresa caring for the dying on the streets of Calcutta. It is ordinary people performing ordinary works of mercy too numerous to count.
The lives of martyrs are not wholesome. Too much gore. According to the fathers of the early church, martyrs were in essence grafted into his sacrifice on the cross in their witness to Christ. Out of their participation in his suffering flowed renewed grace and strength to the communities they left behind. Within the matrix of holiness, the community is ultimately built up not by the imposition of an illusion of right order but by the acceptance, endurance and ultimate transfiguration of the worst forms of disorder. The risen Lord still bears the nail marks in his hands.Hairspray
The culture of 1950’s wholesomeness is symbolized by the typical hairstyle of the era. Think, for example, of the sitcom queen and television housewife Donna Reed. Her coiffure is just as perfect when she greets the milkman first thing in the morning as it is when she serves dessert at the end of an evening dinner party. It never, ever moves. And therein lies the problem. It is not real. It is an illusion. And it is not a harmless illusion.
Hair, after all, does not naturally behave like that. The only way to get it to do so is to apply hairspray. Lots of hairspray. Strong, sticky hairspray, that conquers the whimsy of every strand of hair and forges it all into a lacquered helmet. Its attractiveness is actually deceptive. Touching hair like that is like touching something dead but expertly embalmed. In fact, a woman wears hairspray on those occasions when she cares more about being seen than being touched.
Why not say, then, that hairspray is appropriate on some occasions but not others? Fair enough. But the danger is that we begin to prefer the two-dimensional illusion to the three-dimensional reality of incarnate life. It is wonderful to be the beautiful family on the Christmas card; it’s fabulous to be the shepherd of a lively diocese. But in this time-bound life, it cannot last. The real question is, what do we do when our illusion begins to break up? Do we hold on to appearances, or do we plunge into the messiness, in mercy and courageous witness?
In its pursuit of appearances, wholesomeness is ruthless, not merciful. I have heard more than one story of pastors asking parents of children with Down’s Syndrome not to participate in a public first Communion ceremony. Your child will spoil the picture. Don’t abort the handicapped children, but don’t make us look at them either. In its pursuit of appearances, wholesomeness is cowardly, not courageous. In recent months, we have all read the stories of how some church leaders preferred safeguarding the public image of the church to overcoming sin within it.
Before resurrecting 1950’s wholesomeness, groups like the C.M.A. should reread a short story by Flannery O’Connor, the most acute Catholic critic of this idea. In Revelation, we are introduced to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hard-working, churchgoing woman, who is deeply shaken after a teenage girl calls her a wart hog from hell. At the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin has a vision that convicts and redeems her, just as it convicts and redeems us all:
She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives...and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they always had been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.