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.

To read this issue’s full table of contents, click here.
For more about Englewood Review of Books, click here.

 

Archbishop Oscar Romero has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s no doubt a coincidence that this happened on Memorial Day weekend; much more significantly, it’s the feast of Pentecost.

And it’s a remarkable thing.

Both church and state villified Romero in his lifetime and in the early years after his murder. For the Vatican, the fear was that Romero, with his Marxism-infused rhetoric, was a practitioner of liberation theology. (He was). For the state–the governments of El Salvador and the U.S.–Romero was an obstacle to securing popular support for El Salvador’s regressive, repressive military government. (True again).

Oscar Anulfo Romero, bookish priest, reluctant archbishop, firebrand preacher and populist, was a thorn in the side of both the religious and political establishments.

We know now, and have always known, of course, that the corrupt government that Romero called out time and again–always with unflinching honesty and Christ-like charity–was supported and defended by the United States. By Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. By six billion dollars in military aid to prop up a regime which oversaw unspeakable abuses of the Salvadoran people, a breathtaking range of human rights violations: torture and rape, the disappearing of dissidents, the slaughter of priests and peasants as a matter of course.

This weekend, if you’re Catholic, if you’re Christian, if you’re human, you have to take this historical reality into account.

But much of our memorializing will trend, as it always does, toward the jingoistic, the simplistic, the cliche-riddled hyperpatriotism that does a disservice to the women and men who fight and die in wars conceived by powerful men whose own sons and daughters are largely spared the suffering and the dying.

Surely it’s possible to honor the selflessness that’s part of soldiering and to mourn the fallen without slipping into the kind of sentimental white-washing that denies the complexities and ambiguities, the compromises and betrayals, both large and small, that the war dead knew well?

Why, then, can’t we–in their stead, on their behalf, for their sake–be honest enough to honor such truths?

On Pentecost, we celebrate a most unlikely gift: that a beleaguered and bewildered band of followers of a failed Messiah (he didn’t stick it to Rome as many had hoped) became a body, his body, for the sake of a broken, suffering, war-torn world. Through the Spirit’s power, this body is the sign, servant, and foretaste of God’s reign of justice and shalom.

One of the readings for mass this weekend is from 1 Corinthians, where St. Paul describes the unity of the body. As members of the one body, our lives are linked with sisters and brothers everywhere–in El Salvador, Syria, Iraq, and the ends of the earth. We are the church not in lordly domination but in solidarity with the suffering.

Many Protestants will hear Paul’s words to the Romans where the same spirit of unity and humility obtains: the whole creation groans and waits; we don’t know how to pray as we ought but we trust the Spirit’s sighs of intercession for us. This, too, is the posture the people of God are called to assume–not one of might-makes-right or of glorifying death but one of hope and humility in a world that aches for peace.

Our brother, Oscar, bore witness to this in his life and his death. And for that, they killed him. May we remember and memorialize his death and all deaths, this day and every day, with the truth-telling they deserve.

Blessed Oscar, pray for us.

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From Chapter One:

Being Human, Being Happy

Popular advertising slogans could lead a person to think that happiness is what human beings are made for. Coca-Cola invites us to “open happiness.” At the International House of Pancakes it is “come hungry, leave happy,” while the all-you-can-eat restaurant chain Golden Corral entreats: “help yourself to happiness.” Disneyland, since the mid-1960s, boasts that it is “the happiest place on earth.” We feed children “happy meals,” strive for a “happy medium,” admire the “happy-go-lucky” (who seem to live by the mantra “don’t worry, be happy”)—all while trying to find our own private “happy place.” Even one of our nation’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, asserts that human beings have an “unalienable right” to the “pursuit of happiness.” Happiness, it seems, is ever on our minds (and on our stomachs, if the corporate restaurateurs are to be believed). We want desperately to be happy.

But what counts as genuine happiness? If, as corporations like Coca-Cola and Disney would have us believe, happiness can be had in the products and experiences we consume, why are we—the savviest shoppers in the history of modern advertising—notoriously unhappy?[1] At least one answer to this question can be found in poet John Ciardi’s observation, made half a century ago, that advertising and the whole of our economy are based on “dedicated insatiability.”[2] It isn’t that consumerism makes us happy by satisfying our desires for material goods or attractively packaged experiences; rather, our consumer culture trains us to be perpetually dissatisfied. As theologian William Cavanaugh has observed, consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else.[3] So the happiness I might feel at acquiring a new pair of shoes or a luxury vacation (increased, perhaps, if I believe I got a good deal on the purchase) is not only a kind of temporary pleasure since soon enough the newness of the product or the experience will fade and my euphoria with it. Rather, American consumer culture teaches me that the pleasure of consumption is itself in the very process of acquiring my good deal: advertisers want me, want all of us, to be addicted not to things but to the endless pursuit of things. And most of us seem all too happy to oblige.

Yet even if we concede that the happiness held out by marketing campaigns is fleeting if not false, shallow, and ultimately unsatisfying, why do we still find ourselves seduced by the promise that happiness can be ours if only we can secure the ideal job or the perfect mate, if we can just lose those excess pounds or raise successful children or have the respect of our peers? Perhaps this promise lures us because a hunger for happiness is at the heart of what it means to be human. As theologian Paul Wadell observes: “The story of our lives can be read as one unfolding search for happiness because we relentlessly pursue whatever we think will be good for us; whatever we suspect will fulfill us, delight us, bring us peace, and deepen the meaning of our lives.”[4]

The Christian tradition has always held that human beings are created for happiness, but it has defined ultimate happiness as knowing, loving, and enjoying God. We are created in the image of God, bearing something of the divine within us, and thus communion with our Creator—and with all of creation—is central to what it means to be fully human. Famously, St. Augustine declared that our hearts are restless till they find rest in God. The Westminster Catechism opens by asking what is the purpose of our lives as human beings, and answering with: to love God and to enjoy God forever. And St. Thomas Aquinas, in perhaps one of the most thorough treatments of the subject, observed that happiness is intimately linked with goodness. In this he was following Aristotle who believed that only goodness can make us happy. And while there are many goods intrinsic to a life of happiness—food, shelter, satisfying work to do, enough money to live on, art and music and beauty of all kinds to stir our imaginations, friends and loved ones to enjoy all of these things with—the highest good and our ultimate happiness can be found, Aquinas believed, only in God.

Happiness as Gift-in-Community

But how does that work exactly? What would it look like to discover and experience complete happiness in God? For Aquinas, attaining ultimate happiness is a matter of our becoming like God in goodness. But this, too, sounds far-fetched—impossible, even (and perhaps not a little presumptuous). How can we become like God in anything?

In contrast to a culture that trains us to view happiness as something we buy or take or make, something we earn or deserve or accomplish, the Christian tradition has insisted that a life of genuine happiness is beyond our own powers and capacities. It is not, as much talk-show psychology would have it, something available within ourselves if only we would reach down deep enough to find it. Rather, genuine happiness comes to us through grace; it is a gift. “The God who wants our good,” Wadell says, “gifts us with the happiness we seek.”[5] Our lifelong task, then, to repurpose a beautiful phrase from novelist Marilynne Robinson, “is to put ourselves in the way of the gift.”[6]

The happiness we were made for, that comes to us as gift to be received rather than goal to be achieved (or interior state to be accessed) is, as Scripture makes clear, relentlessly social. This is at least one reason why seeking happiness through the exercise of individual choice in a market economy is a futile quest. In the opening chapters of Genesis we learn that God created human beings for friendship with one another and with God, and the book of Revelation describes powerfully the heavenly communion that characterizes the ultimate happiness—the beatific vision—for which all of creation is destined. Thus the Bible reveals, from beginning to end, that the gift of happiness is deeply social, “ineluctably political.”[7] “Political,” in this sense, has to do with how human beings are constituted by community and how we might flourish in it—how it is that we are good together. There is no human thriving, no genuine happiness apart from life lived in connection with others as the good is sought and practiced and enjoyed and witnessed to. For Aristotle, this meant that the polis is “more than a pact of mutual protection or an agreement to exchange goods and services … [it] is intended to enable all, in their households and their kinships, to live well.”[8] In Christian terms we would say that through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into a polis—the communion of saints being one way to name it—and that in the Eucharist we are nourished and sustained as a community of friends who, week after week, year after year, enact our desire to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to be drawn more and more deeply into the goodness of God. Yet even in the polis of the worshiping community, our attempts to “become like God in goodness” are not our own moral achievements. As we have said, all of this comes through grace and as gift.

To learn more, click here.

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[1] Harris Poll Happiness Index. http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/1200/Default.aspx

[2] Ciardi, “Is Everybody Happy?,” 18.

[3] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 35.

[4] Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life, 2.

[5] Wadell, 16.

[6] Robinson, Gilead, 134.

[7] McCabe, The Good Life, 25.

[8] Aristotle, Politics, III, 9. Quoted in McCabe, 38. (Italics in McCabe).

 

 

If slow food is a thing–a good thing–is there such a thing as slow art?

In Wallace Stegner’s beautiful novel, Crossing to Safetythere are moving descriptions of the city of Florence. The book tells the story of two couples who become friends during the Depression and who, many years later, spend a year–one of them is on sabbatical–living in this beautiful city. IMG_5726

In a year, one could possibly take in what visitors like me try to see in a week.

There’s something about gorging on art that feels like stuffing oneself with food–just because it’s there, just because you can. But gorging isn’t feasting and how do you do the latter when there’s just not enough time?

This is a good problem to have. I’ve been in Florence, Italy for a week. I don’t mean to complain.

But it can sometimes feel like the worst of smorgasboard consumerism, the silliest kind of checklist tourism: “we did the Uffizi today” (or the Louvre or the Met or the National Gallery). I don’t think so.

I have seen some of the most breathtaking paintings, frescoes, statues, and other objets d’art in some of the world’s most glorious churches, museums, piazzas, and palaces. But I have also at times felt such sensory overload, such emotional exhaustion, that looking at one more chapel ceiling, one more gallery of paintings is all but impossible. Okay, it is impossible.

Still.

There is such a thing as the antipasto of an amazing Tuscan meal, the foretaste of a magnificent banquet. That I have experienced.

And it has been so very good.

Arrivederci, Firenze.

 

If the places in which fast food is eaten are aseptic and nondescript, let’s rediscover the warmth of a traditional osteria, the fascination of a historic café, the liveliness of places where making food is still a craft . . . 

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food: The Case for Taste

I don’t think it’s an accident that the slow food movement was founded by an Italian.

Ristorante-Paoli-firenzeIn my brief, limited experience, meals in the city of Florence are occasions for conviviality more than caloric intake.

Convivium: from the Latin meaning “to live with,” but also suggesting “joyous feasting,” even “carousing together.”

In this city of beautiful food and the people who serve it, I think of a scene in Life is Beautiful–a film written and directed by and starring Roberto Benigni (another Italian), that is by turns charming and haunting.  In the scene, Guido, the main character, is schooled in the art of waiting tables:

Think of a sunflower, they bow to the sun. But if you see some that are bowed too far down, it means they’re dead. You’re here serving, you’re not a servant. Serving is the supreme art. God is the first of servants. God serves men, but he’s not a servant to men.

I notice this distinction in the men and women who wait and serve in this city. No hovering. No smothering. Just competence and confidence with humility in the work they do.

Another favorite writer says this:

“Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.”

In this age of eating fast and eating alone, we hardly know how to cultivate taste–which isn’t the prerogative of the affluent only but the call of every person to desire, to enjoy (and to have access to) good, delicious, nutritionally dense food.

I think that the food-related health issues that our culture currently faces (obesity, the steep rise in type-2 diabetes, for instance), are, at least in part, crises of taste. And at least one solution to the increasing–and increasingly global–problem of overconsumption is not deprivation—not endless scrimping and skimping and counting and calculating, but (re)discovering the myriad pleasures of eating.

To take delight in good food mindfully prepared and beautifully served (even if done so by ourselves) is to acknowledge our dependence on the gifts that sustain our very lives. It is to practice conviviality: to abide with, carouse with, feast with family and friends at the abundant table of creation.

 

And then there was Michelangelo’s David.

And I couldn’t speak. And I really don’t know what to write. Really.david-hand-760x970

In a crowd of Japanese school children and a host of other tourists and visitors, I was completely overwhelmed, completely overcome.

For all the things going through my head in those moments and the hours since, I come back to this one thing: Michelangelo represents the humanism of the high Renaissance, and every first-year Humanities student can list the characteristics of this movement–the celebration of human achievement, for one.

But in trying to take in this astonishing feat of human achievement, I was struck–am struck–by the power of art to make us more human, to make us more fully what we are meant to be, to make us beautiful.

Much more needs to be said about this, for sure, and in contemplating the David all day, I am exhausted and bereft of words. But this at least:

We don’t take in a profound work of art in order to possess its beauty but rather that we might  be possessed by beauty ourselves, that we might learn what it means to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.

 

With some free time today, I had hoped to make it to San Marco, a church and monastery-now-museum, where Dominican Girolamo Savonarola (mentioned in day two’s post) lived and delivered his fiery sermons to the citizens of Florence. More famously, the painter, Fra Angelico, was also a monk, and later the prior, at San Marco. Coppo_di_Marcovaldo._Madonna._1250-60_Santa_Maria_Maggiore,_Florence.

Under the patronage of Cosimo the Elder de Medici, Angelico’s art adorned both church and cloister–his crucifix on the high altar and his frescoes (along with those of other artists) installed in individual cells. And they’re still there.

One of the most iconic images of the Renaissance–Angelico’s Annunciation–is placed at the top of a staircase, its figures life-size, the landscape backdrop of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary very similar to the courtyard of the Florentine monastery.

Not that I saw this or any of the other glorious art of San Marco today. There were some unexpected delays and changes in plans. Another day, I hope.

But walking back toward the hotel, I found myself alongside the outer north wall of a church so non-descript that I wouldn’t have known it was a church, save for a small, modest sign indicating that it was Santa Maria Maggiore. I ducked inside.

And I had that experience that I’ve had several times already in this stunning city: Outward appearances can be deceiving. Not always, of course. When you gaze upon the Duomo or the Church of Santa Maria Novella, they are–in very different ways–imposing and impressive. You know, so to speak and to a certain degree, what you’re getting into.

But a church like Santa Maria Maggiore, plastered and de-plastered numerous times through the centuries, does not spill its secrets or flaunt its treasures. From a busy street one enters the quiet, dark interior and finds one of the most antique churches in Florence. Built in the 10th century, Romanesque and Cistercian, Santa Maria Maggiore has three aisles with pointed arches on square piers. There are striking paintings of two episodes from the story of King Herod, and the left chapel features a relief in gilded wood of Madonna and Child.

There is much more, of course, but this was all I could take in during the few minutes I had.

This brief experience today was about more than “never judge a book by it’s cover”–as true and useful as that old saw is. It isn’t despite plainness and simplicity that beauty often shines forth. It’s that the plainness and simplicity are always part of the beauty–of buildings, of people.

But it takes work to see that. We are hard-wired, perhaps, to respond immediately, to be moved viscerally, by the visually striking. And it strikes me, in this city of ancient and medieval churches, that American Christians often want the spectacular, the dazzling, the entertaining in their worship experiences, especially.

What is ordinary, what is plain or simple, what has been steadfastly unspectacular through the centuries–praying the liturgy of the hours, for example–seems manifestly uninteresting to us.

But in such plain beauty are secrets revealed, treasures discovered. If only we have eyes to see.

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