I was interviewed by Mary Ann McKibben-Dana of The Englewood Review of Books for their latest issue. We talked about my new book, Happiness, Health, and Beauty: The Christian Life in Everyday Terms. Here are a few excerpts.
ERB: You do a good job of putting happiness into a broader and deeper context than the sometimes banal version of happiness that popular or consumer culture wants to serve up. Still, I found myself having to translate in my head what you meant versus the way the word is used colloquially.
DDM: A theological account of happiness has some affinity with certain cultural conceptions of the term, even as it critiques much of what Westerners mean by it. We are created for happiness. Human beings long for steadfast, deep-seated contentment, for full and satisfying lives, for fundamental well-being, but modern marketing has seduced us into thinking that such happiness is found in the endless pursuit of things—not in the things themselves,
interestingly, but in our insatiable desire for the next thing, the next experience, that next feeling of happiness. Of course, advertisers brilliantly exploit the fact that this quest is illusory. (On this note, I have found the recently concluded TV series Mad Men—about Madison Avenue in the 1960s—particularly suited for this kind of theological exploration).
Classic Christian doctrine has insisted that we are happy only in God, but also that such happiness is found in relationship with others as we seek to be like God in goodness. And Jesus shows us very concretely, very specifically, what God’s goodness looks like; we don’t have to wonder or guess. Happiness, then—our flourishing together in the goodness of God—is relentlessly social, unavoidably political, and delightfully (and sometimes riskily) countercultural.
ERB: You ask a wonderful question in the health chapter: “What are we to make of the unhealthy, overweight body we have become? How do we address—with grace, not judgment—the alarming rise in food-related illness and obesity in the bodies of men, women and children who are members of the Eucharistic body?” You answer that in your book but I wonder what you might share with readers here.
DDM: Increasingly grim health statistics (skyrocketing rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and cancer) have mostly to do with food— eating the wrong kind and too much of it. At the heart of Christianity is a ritual that has to do with food—bread and wine that we believe is Christ’s body and blood given for the well-being of all who partake of it. That we have failed to see the connections between these two kinds of eating—one to our detriment, one to our salvation—is due, at least in part, to the pervasive idea that what matters most in the Christian life is our spiritual well-being. We are dualists, basically; we believe that each of us is an immortal soul housed in a temporary body.
But this is Plato, not Jesus. In the New Testament, the word for “salvation” implies cure, remedy, recovery; it connotes the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Jesus doesn’t save disembodied souls; he rescues whole persons—body, mind and spirit— that they might live abundant lives of wholeness and happiness and bear witness, that this is the way of the kingdom here and now. Yet our contemporary imaginations are held captive by the dualistic view. If our bodies are sick or chronically obese, at least we’ll be well when we get to heaven— so the thinking goes. It’s no wonder, then, that most churches are bereft of resources to address these mounting health crises in a rigorously theological, responsibly biblical sort of way.
But for those who want to try, who sense that these problems are not, at root, a failure of individual willpower but a crisis of community, we begin where we always do—at the Eucharistic table. From the sharing of this simple meal flow sermons, studies, and conversations about physical health; community gardens; adventures in eating slow and eating together (we often eat to to our harm when we eat alone); and a reckoning with our complicity in unjust food systems.
ERB: Moving on to your third section, my perception is that many theologians are okay with beauty so long as it has a sense of utility—so long as it points us to truth or right living. What’s your response to that? Can and should beauty exist for its own sake?
DDM: Yes, there’s a long-standing tradition of valuing beauty for its benefits. I note in the book that one of the few occasions when Wesley allowed himself to be caught up in beauty was when he read Homer’s Odyssey during a long stretch of riding horseback. His journal entry on this occasion is uncharacteristically effusive and he reveals a kind of playfulness and delight often absent in his reflections on art and beauty. Still, for Wesley, Homer’s true value lies in how he (and poetry generally) can be instructive for the moral life.
But if the best of the Christian tradition has held that beauty inheres in the beingness of things, then of course beauty does not exist primarily to serve our interests or agendas or moral advancement. To insist that it must reveals something of the arrogance and solipsism to which we are easily prone. In the book, I mention the gospel story of the woman who anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Jesus says of her action that “she has done a beautiful thing for me.” On one level, I suppose we could read the utility of the action: she prefigures Jesus’s burial, she does a beautiful thing for the sake of something else, etc. But I’m more persuaded by the idea that this unknown, unnamed woman simply makes beauty visible: she bears the beauty of the divine image in self-emptying action. For all that seems extraordinary about this tender act, it offers for us a witness, a model for how we, too, in ordinary, everyday ways might learn to be possessed by beauty, to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.