“Here we are now, entertain us!”

2 01 2010

Or: the First Evangelization was free. The New One is going to cost ya’

I was witness to a combox meltdown on another Catholic blog recently, opening up some wounds from my Scott Hahn post a few weeks back. I wrote:

Of course, what we all are here, Mr. Shea, myself, and the host blogger, are entertainers. Let us not pretend that we are otherwise. None of us has a commission from the Church to write, none of us has a “right” to make a living off of how we write. Inevitably, that is what Chesterton was as well, and unlike perhaps our host blogger, I regard Chesterton as no sacred cow. (Though I did use his writings for something I wrote for New Oxford Review.) We are the products of markets and ratings, we are only read insofar as we “sell” (except I make it a point to give my stuff away). My “niche market” includes Catholics, Protestants, Wiccans, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, kids who play with witchcraft, etc. If people want to imply that I suck, they are in their rights to do so, just as they are in their rights to say that the latest episode of the Simpsons sucked, or the last episode of Battlestar Galactica could have been better, etc. Let’s not pretend to have some sacred commission by which we are immune from criticism just because we touch on religious topics. We rise and fall by the rules of entertainment, and nothing else.

Indeed, I find Shea bemoaning the fact that people are “whispering” behind his back a bit baffling. Are people whispering behind James Cameron’s back if they give an unfavorable review of Avatar on their blog? (Haven’t seen it, probably never will.) Just because a blogger writes on religious topics, and maybe even has a few clerical endorsements (this blog has had a few), doesn’t mean that attacking him is the equivalent of attacking the Pope, or an ecumenical council, or a licensed (clerical) theologian. Yes, in the end, we are entertainers. We create markets for ourselves. And if people don’t like it, then don’t read. Simple as that. To be indignant about people dissing your product is sort of the equivalent of Kanye West blowing up at people if they don’t like his latest album.

The deeper issue is whether people should be making money off of any of this in the first place. I am well aware that lay people have made a living doing things for the Church, particularly in the arts. Lully more than likely got paid for composing his Te Deum, and Rafael for painting in churches. But can we really say that at any point in the history of the Church that there were mercenary theologians who wrote books to help “evangelize” the masses? Did St. John Chrysostom worry about royalty checks from people publishing his sermons, or did St. Bernard go on a speaking tour to promote his commentary on the Song of Songs? Yes, we live in a different time, a time when there are not enough clergy to run the Church. But imagine the shape Catholic theology would have taken if it were always subjugated to the law of the markets, of what sells the most books, of what best articulates the tastes and distastes of the zeitgeist. Would we all be comfortable with that? It is my understanding that many venerable Catholic writings have been canonized precisely because they told people what they DIDN’T want to hear. Only God knows if they would have been “best sellers”.

We do live in an age of ephemeral yapping, and if I thought that I needed to make money off of that fact, I would have to seriously reflect on if I were living righteously. Mr. Shea and other such Catholic writers (even I?) are marketing themselves as brands. If I like their stories, their skills as a raconteur, and their tastes, I identify with them, and I defend them to the death like I defend the local sports team. Personally, if there is a fan club for this blog, I would much rather have it be my own team of “melancholy cheerleaders”. (Please don’t defend me to the death. I can take care of myself, thank you very much.) But to pretend that we are some sort of parallel magisterium while being governed by the rules of the market is about as childish as a lively session of locker room gossip.

Oh yeah, go Saints!