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On Harleys, Christian Car Shows, & the Good Life (or, Why Nietzsche Was Wrong About Christianity)

I read a story in the paper not long ago about a pastor of a Protestant church who, in the hopes of drawing more men to his services, organized a car show.  This pastor rides a Harley & wears jeans & Hawaiian shirts, a point of some importance to the writer of the article.  In its fifth year, the car show draws about 10,000 attendees, has big-name sponsors, & is tied into various charitable causes.  This is a nice story, as people are enjoying themselves & helping others.  Whether or not the pastor is meeting his stated goal of getting “dads out of the garage & into the church” was left unsaid, but the dads are at least out of the garage, which meets the first half of the goal.

I’ve heard similar stories throughout the years about pastors, youth ministers, & others interested in evangelizing the unchurched by inviting them to events such as Christian film nights, Christian rock concerts, Christian coffee houses, Christian comedy nights, & so on.  On the face of it, there’s probably not much to say about this ongoing attempt to reach people by showing them that, yes, we Christians can have fun, too.  We’re human, after all, & we can watch movies, make jokes, & drink lattes like everyone else.  We can even rock-n-roll.  Yet I think there is an underlying assumption in all these stories, one shared by the journalists who write them & by many of those who read them. Namely, the assumption that Christianity makes living an enjoyable life, one replete with everyday pleasures, difficult if not impossible.

I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to be be unduly critical of believers trying to cast their nets & fulfill Christ’s call to be fishers of men.  Evangelism has always taken on interesting & creative forms, including in societies like ours where the Gospel has grown stale.  Nor do I want to make too much out of what, as I said above, is a nice story.  And yet. . .  I couldn’t help, when thinking about pastors wearing Hawaiian shirts, riding Harleys, & organizing Christian car shows, being reminded of Nietzsche’s caustic remarks about the deadening effects Christianity has had on the soul of the West.  Of course Nietzsche had never seen a Protestant pastor in jeans, & he was spared from the banalities of both Christian rock & American journalism.  He did, however, say some things that are pertinent to the story I cited & what many in our society today instinctively feel about Christianity.

Of all the critics of the faith Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) holds pride of place for his wit, ability to turn a phrase, & psychological insight into the impact of Christianity on the psyche of the West.  It would be refreshing to encounter a critic of Nietzsche’s intellectual stature today amid all the drivel dished out by publishing houses seeking to capitalize on the new atheism buzz.  At the very least, we would be treated to a literary elegance that would make even the worst overstatements & inaccuracies more tolerable.  More importantly, we would have a critic who takes Christianity seriously enough to try to understand it & how it shapes its followers.  Even if Nietzsche often badly misreads the faith & its implications, he knows that he must do more than hurl missiles in the hope of destroying something he doesn’t like.  Rather, as a critic he must understand in some depth the Christian ethos & how it revolutionized everything from politics to art to morality as it swept through the late ancient world & changed the way people in the West felt & thought about everything.

Throughout his work Nietzsche complains that Christianity emasculates those who embrace it & the society it takes root in.  “The death of the genuinely human” might be the best short answer to the question of what Nietzsche thinks happens when Christianity establishes itself as the dominant faith of a people.  The ressentiment (he always uses the French word; no one I’ve read seems to know why) he finds at the root of the Christian ethos is a living & active force, sitting in judgment of & trying to root out the very virtues which make genuine greatness possible.  These virtues, according to Nietzsche, are in fact the principle means by which humans make sense of their world & seek to overcome the tragic dimensions of existence.  The pride that Christians denounce as the worst of sins, the recognition of the superiority of the noble to the mediocre that Christians decry as a refusal to honor all of God’s creatures, are, among other qualities characteristic of the greatest civilizations, required to ensure that those civilizations do not lapse into the decadence that Nietzsche associates with nihilism.  Such decadence results from the denial of what makes us most human, & Christianity bears much of the responsibility for this decadence.  A creed that elevates weakness at the expense of strength eviscerates human beings & the cultures they build, as is evident when we study the historical record of the West.

This type of criticism is widely & instinctively felt, if not well understood or articulated.  Not because people have been reading Nietzsche & his disciples, but because it seems to many that religion makes people soft.  Isn’t it commonly held that to “be religious” is to be somehow unnatural & weak?  Think of all the restrictions, all the denials, all the things we are supposed to avoid.  Chastity & abstinence, rejecting anger, suppressing our natural aggressiveness, turning the other cheek, forgiving those who harm you, becoming the milquetoast subjects of an ethic that demands the unnatural virtue of meekness:  How does this fit the do-it-yourself American ethos?  How does this allow us to be properly human?  And, in a society with simplistic ideas about gender roles, doesn’t this Christian ethos seem too feminine?  Isn’t this apparent at every church service, where all you have to do is check out the male/female ratio of those in attendance to take the measure of this religion?  Nietzsche was tapping into a natural vein of criticism when he attacked Christianity as life-denying, & while the average critic today may not be able to keep in step with his blistering polemic, there is a shared distrust of any form of religious sensibility, especially one nurtured by all the sweet sentiments expressed in popular Christian culture.  Christianity can often seem like a humorless attempt to follow the Jesus in those kitschy paintings, the one who is holding a lamb & surrounded by cute little children.  All so sweet, all so sentimental.  This is the faith that conquered a world?

Some Christians will respond to this view, which they may unconsciously hold themselves, by mimicking secular culture.  I remember going to a Christian rock concert shortly after my conversion all those years ago.  The friend who invited me, a recent convert as well, tried to convince me that the devil did not have the best tunes, & that Christian rock was legitimate.  “You praise Jesus and get to rock,” he said.  After a few songs, as we walked out of the auditorium with blank stares on our faces & a sick feeling in our hearts, we got in the car & cranked up REM (this was the mid-’80’s).  “Too bad they’re not Christian,” we said, wondering how many more Christian concerts we’d be invited to.  “Too bad we’re not supposed to like this stuff,” we thought, wondering if we’d get to listen to the music we liked without feeling guilty.  “Love not the world,” right?  This meant, according to the crowd we hung with, “Love not secular music, secular movies, secular activities, anything that smacks of the life you are leaving behind.”  For these are not the fruit of the love of Christ, so what good are they?  They glorify the flesh, not the Lord.  And how do they help us evangelize the lost?  How do they not corrupt those of us who now live in Christ & are called to denounce the spirit of this age?  Yes, the devil probably does have the best tunes, as we had to admit after listening to the Christian stuff, but real sacrifices must be made.  Take up your cross & all that.  Just like the guy did who testified in church that he had burned all his secular records because of his desire to serve the Lord with all his heart.  The applause he received was impressive.

Such was the thinking of the Christian world I had entered, the world of a conservative Protestant evangelicalism still haunted by its fundamentalist origins.  My group of new friends had a few who still listened to secular music & watched secular films, though guiltily.  That included me.  Lacking a theological foundation in the incarnational logic of the faith, we enjoyed secular culture with a bad conscience, & even tried to justify our delights by appealing to how we would be able to meet unbelievers on their own turf. “This will actually help us to witness to Christ,” we said, trying to answer the critic inside us who wondered how our visitations to the land of the lost would be seen by its inhabitants.  “Unbelievers will see that we Christians are actually cool, that our faith doesn’t disqualify us from the good life.”  And, of course, we tried to find all kinds of hidden Christian ideas in our secular music & films, deciphering lyrics & scripts as if they were allegories begging to be cracked open by those of us brave enough to risk such dangerous exposure.

This will sound familiar to a lot of believers, not only Protestants, current or former.  While I think this is more of a Protestant issue, there are Catholics who struggle with the same questions & doubts.  With this sort of struggle within the community of believers, is it any surprise that those on the outside think what they do about us?  It often seems to them, as it does to many believers themselves, that we have embraced a faith that demands of us a renunciation of everything that makes life worth living, even innocent pleasures.  Isn’t this just more evidence that we can’t enjoy life without feeling guilty?  Who needs Nietzsche to point out the obvious?  It’s enough simply to hear us babbling about beatitudes that deny common sense & running away from even harmless pursuits like music & movies to remind people why going to church seems a huge waste of time.

I think this is behind those stories that inform readers that there are Christians who wear Hawaiian shirts, ride Harleys, engage in activities like going to car shows, open coffee shops with religious names (“Sacred Grounds,” “Holy Beans,” etc.), go to Christian concerts, & so on.  “Hey, look,” the stories imply, “those religious people are actually doing things we enjoy.  Maybe they’re not so weird, after all.”  The newspaper is no place to look for theological sophistication, but it does reveal the common American lack of even the most basic awareness of Christian teaching.  This misunderstanding includes the idea that, as Nietzsche believed, we Christians can not by the very logic of our faith live the good life, as too much must be excluded.  The Harley riders, moviegoers, & rockers among us must be the exception to the rule. It’s as if we’re at the zoo & we see a baboon combing its hair.  “Hey, kids, look at the funny monkey,” we say.  ”It’s trying to act like us.”  Yes, but it’s still a baboon.

Some believers accept the basic premise of these stories, & play the baboon, primping & preening for their secular neighbors, hoping to be validated in their eyes, or perhaps hoping to convince themselves that they are not giving up everything that makes life worth living.  No, I am not indicting the pastor in the story mentioned above, or most of the other Christians who do similar things (but “Sacred Grounds”? C’mon).  Rather, I am simply reflecting on my own experiences as a new believer way back when, what Nietzsche said about us Christians, & some commonly held ideas in our society.  I do think there is some validity in reading news stories from this perspective, or in asking these questions about them & why they are considered worthy of being published in the first place.  What’s most important to me about all this, however, is the conviction that Jesus was actually wrong, that following him does demand our emasculation, that the poor in spirit are not the blessed ones, & that meekness is a sign of weakness.  And that the saints I so admire didn’t know the truth that sets us free.  The good life may or may not include car shows or rock music, but it will be modeled upon the life of Jesus.  On this point Nietzsche was badly mistaken, as are all those who accept his conclusions.  That those outside (& sometimes inside) our community of faith are surprised by the fact that we can use the things of this world, that we can enjoy many things that are not overtly “religious,” is not ultimately due to their commitment to Nietzsche’s writings or lack of theological knowledge, but to our inability or unwillingness as believers to understand Jesus & the faith we profess, & to live accordingly.  Were we to live the Beatitudes, as the saints always do, & witness to the joy that life in Christ makes possible, we might inspire journalists to write a different type of story about us, one that does not express surprise at the fact that we can ride Harleys.  Too many Christians seem to think that everyday pleasures are morally suspect & that there is something odd about Christians who enjoy themselves doing “regular” things.  In our preaching & in our lives we should be better able to tease out the implications of the incarnational faith we profess, & show by the joy of our lives that Nietzsche, & everyone who suspects that he was right, had a deeply flawed understanding of what it means to be human.  And that Jesus was on target when he told us that the good life, the happy life, the life of genuine blessedness, is lived only by those are transformed by the Holy Spirit so that they are poor in spirit, knowing their dependence upon God; so that they are meek, able to battle successfully the temptation to use force against the foes & frustrations that seek to thwart us; & so on.  We are hardly emasculated by the Spirit, but strengthened & enabled to live as God intended us to live.  Rather than having to read reports on how Christians are doing things others do, despite their religious beliefs, we should see more stories about how utterly different we are, how we live with greater joy & peace than our neighbors, & how that joy & peace is a sign of the presence of the Spirit within us.

–Anthony DiStefano

9 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Pingback: On Harleys, Christian Car Shows, & the Good Life (or, Why Nietzsche Was Wrong About.. - Christian Forums

  2. CS

    Oh to the mind that is Catholic! A real pleasure to read. A rock show is best when it is a rock show, Mass is best when it is Mass. Perhaps our North American sensibility is that if it is a purified, hybrid, version, it must be better?

    Nietzsche would have been a tremendous Saint. His intellect and wit were hands down of the finest grade.

    Charismatic Catholics and evangelicals seem to forget that the Incarnation changed every aspect of reality. Everything that can be sanctified and redeemed, has been. We don’t need to make our own, pure, kitschy version of things in order for it to be okay for consumption. There is nothing overtly Christian about a Mumford and Sons concert, but go read the lyrics. It is entirely possible to bring Christ to the world, rather than have to accomodate the world to Christ.

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  3. Jonathan

    I appreciate the points you put forth here, but there is something I think you’re blurring just a little bit. A very core Catholic Truth is that the monastic and clerical life represents the most perfect and ideal living of the Gospel’s witness to the Truth that is Christ. Monastics and clerics have always denied themselves stringently, even to the point of denying themselves “common pleasures” often enough in the pursuit of holiness and of God. Nietzsche is not right when he criticizing Christianity in general for going against the grain of human nature, but not because he is entirely false in his understanding of Christianity. His understanding is very clearly a warped one, and he doesn’t understand the concept of a strong Catholic male, the concept of a knight, the elevation and divinization of the earthly and human, the hard and unyielding battle that must be fought to exhibit virtue, and the like. But his basic understanding of Christianity as being against the grain of pride, dominance, strength having power over weakness, and in general, against the way we often see animalistic life, is spot on. Christianity *IS* absolutely clear contrary in many ways to the life many find they are attracted to, the life of essentially jungle law and of the glorification of the Will as supreme. It is precisely this truth about Christianity that is one of its highest proofs, because it resonates with a place of divine image in man that can only be justified by the Incarnation, and the connection God has made with His creation through their Reason and their spirit. Christianity is very much at odds with what people may find normal, that’s why there are so many injunctions in the Scriptures, particularly from St. John the Evangelist, that the system of this world finds its only being in death, but those who do the will of God (when it conflicts with the world) live eternally.

    I guess all I’m saying is that I believe Nietzsche is wrong not because he didn’t clearly see that Christianity denies some of the baseness and unchecked passions, aggression, and pride of Will and Ego that is present in man; rather, I believe he was wrong because he believed that these baser and more animalistic tendencies shouldn’t be fought against and victory should not be won over them. When I read Nietzsche, his worldview horrifies me. It is absolutely disgusting because it represents purified and refined cruelty. When man gives in to his human nature without subjugating it to his divine image of God, men turn into devils, and Nietzsche proved that. It was not an accident that he was all but taken as the patron philosopher-saint of Hitler’s Germany.

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    1. Tony

      Jonathan—

      Nietzsche is wrong about many things, though there are many Catholic commentators who greatly respect him & his thought, even when rejecting many of his ideas. De Lubac & Balthasar are two such writers, & Nietzsche himself acknowledged that it was Christians in his own time who tended to take him more seriously than fellow atheists. That was because he understood, as so many other atheists did not, that one can’t simply reject God & live as if it doesn’t matter. He understood the stakes; cf. his attack on the “English blockheads” in Twilight of the Idols, where he acknowledges the impossibility of maintaining Christian morality without the existence of the Christian God. So many of Nietzsche’s contemporaries, as is true of ours, think you can simply assume Christian moral values, without needing to ground them in anything. Of course, Nietzsche does give the nod to a kind of Social Darwinism, though he is at times confusing here, as he is himself confused, I think. “(P)urified & refined cruelty” is a great phrase when discussing his views, & he does represent the attempt to elevate an aristocratic indifference to victims into a new, or recovered, gospel. At the same time, his sister’s attempts to sell him to the Nazis, in part by creatively editing unpublished notebooks, shouldn’t be seen as expressing Nietzsche’s own views. I suspect he would see the Nazis as little more than thugs whose cruelty was based on fear & a desire for revenge. Hardly purified or refined. This is not to agree with Nietzsche or try to let him off the hook for his at times cruel speculations & doctrines. I still think Nietzsche is often less consistent & more confused than some make him out to be, at times driven by a bitterness that clouded his ability to see clearly. I struggle with him, honestly. I heard that Robert Spaemann, one of the foremost Catholic philosophers writing today, once said that Nietzsche was desperately looking for those qualities that we Catholics praise in the Blessed Virgin Mary. His background in liberal German Protestantism, along with his rejection of transcendent norms of any kind, guaranteed his confusion on just what he wanted. I don’t know; this is one reason why he continues to intrigue me. I do think that long after the Richard Dawkins’s of the world are forgotten, Christians will still be reading & wrestling with Nietzsche, in part because there is something elemental in his thought that requires us, in every new generation, to struggle with & against.

      As far as clerics & monastics representing “the most perfect & ideal living” of the Gospel witness: this is a “very core Catholic Truth”? I thought those are represented by the Creed. I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you here, as I understand the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, & the fullness of the Church’s moral teaching as as much of an invitation to me, a married laymen with children, as to any monk or cleric. We are all called to holiness, to a life of faith, hope, & love. “Well done, good & faithful servant” won’t be said with more force to someone just because they are a cleric. Of course, denying ourselves of “common pleasures” is a matter of great importance, but we must do so for the right reasons. Too many people, Christians included, reject pleasures because of an incipient & unconscious commitment to gnosticism & a hatred of the body. They deny, in practical terms, the Incarnation & its implications. Read the end of the 1st paragraph of CS Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory” for a bracing alternative to the fear that some Christians have of pleasure. There is a time & place for pleasure, isn’t there, just as there is a time & place for the denial of pleasure? There is no room at all for a denial of pleasure on gnostic grounds, however. Taking up our cross on a daily basis will look different for each one of us, cleric, layperson, whomever. My post was about how many Christians suspect, whether or not they are able to articulate their reasons for suspecting, that “ordinary pleasures” (riding a Harley, for example, drinking a latte or a cup of fine Kenyan coffee bursting with blackberry & black currant undertones, drinking a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale from Stone Brewery, etc.) are strangers to us because of our religion. This is not quite the same thing as Lenten disciplines or a life in which these ordinary pleasures are willingly sacrificed. Thanks for the reply.

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      1. Jonathan

        I’ll pass over your response about Nietzsche, because it was excellent, and a great read, thanks for your response.

        About the Gospel perfection, I apologize for using over-the-top language there, I wrote that late and didn’t carefully measure the language I was using to convey what I was thinking. Certainly, you’re right about the Creeds, and about the Gospel being for everyone. What I was intending to say was more along the lines that willingly sacrificing certain pleasures for the pursuit of God and of personal holiness is not wrong because it goes against the grain of what we want – I was more defending a certain amount of asceticism, fasting, denying yourself pleasure, as being good and wholesome if one feels called to it, not the abolition of all pleasure on puritanical or gnostic grounds, which many Christians do indeed do.

        I also was trying to convey (and in hindsight I was not clear about this at all) that I think one mistake that can flow from the idea of not denying yourself simple pleasures is that, in my opinion, if taken too liberally it can lead to confusing the difference between vice and freedom. For instance, I have seen Catholics have this profound cognitive dissonance, this incredible tension between an intense religious fidelity and fervor, say, for the Mass, and their choice of music, language, amount of alcohol consumed, and other hallmarks of lifestyle. A man who has taken this idea too liberally might go to Mass on Sundays devoutly and religiously after spending Friday or Saturday night raucously drinking himself into a stupor. Believe me, it happens, my own uncle’s family does this with great regularity, and he is not the odd one out. Or, a man might recite the Rosary faithfully and uniting His Heart to the Immaculate Beauty while at other times using profanity and crude speech because “it’s just a venial sin.” A man might love Sacred Music at Mass and lift his soul to God in it, and then turn around and listen to music the other six days of the week that glorifies promiscuity, drug use, and other vices and sins (some classic rock comes to mind). This is just not unheard-of among Christians of all stripes, churches, and ecclesial communities who hold to some sort of Catholic or Catholic-like notion of freedom to allow themselves pleasure and a happy life.

        Please note a few things: 1) I’m not condemning your article or your thoughts in the least. I think that this notion is excellent, but it can be taken to mean something it’s not, and it’s not always puritanical or gnostic to shun some common practices among Catholics or other Christians that can appear at the very least in very bad taste, or just incongruous with legitimate purity and growing to be as pure as the Blessed Mother. 2) Honestly I don’t have all the answers. I’m a young guy, I don’t know how to balance all of these notions and lifestyles. That’s something * I * struggle with, and will try to sort out as I grow into my twenties here.

        I simply mean to say that there are legitimate perspectives that can counterbalance this freedom concept within Catholicism. Is the secular automatically bad? Not by a long shot. Is it *often* celebratory of sin and vice? Maybe, yeah. Is immersing yourself in media that glorifies sin and vice, right and proper? I don’t think so, not if we want to take seriously the fact that we all ought to be united to the Purest and most Immaculate of all creatures, and that we are Her children. At the end of the day, I don’t mind being looked at askance by the world or thought weird for modeling the Blessed Mother’s purity and holiness. I submit my opinions to every man’s conscience as just that, opinion. God bless you brother.

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        1. Tony

          And you, as well. I think we both struggle to comprehend & articulate those matters which matter the most. “Through a glass darkly”, after all. I agree that a false view of freedom is destructive & makes genuine love, of God, neighbor, & enemy, more difficult than it already is.

          There are a few ways we can go wrong with freedom, & not just in the direction of overindulgence. Remember St. Paul on the topic of eating meat sacrificed to idols. We are certainly free to do it, he insists, but we must be careful, particularly for the sake of weaker brethren. This is a tricky topic, for it raises the question of just what rules must we follow, & just how much authority my weaker brethren have over me. And here, alas, we can too easily betray our commitment to a type of moral idolatry that rejects the freedom that Christ entrusts us with, a freedom we resist because it requires discipline & trust. Bernanos has his priest say the following: “There remains the unforeseen. And the unforeseen is never negligible. Am I where Our Lord would have me be? Twenty times a day I ask this question. For the Master whom we serve not only judges our life but shares it, takes it upon Himself. It would be far easier to satisfy a geometrical & moralistic God.”

          I love that phrase, “a geometrical & moralistic God.” A God who eschews mystery & freedom for certainties. But certainties of the wrong kind. Cf. Ivan Karamazov’s complaint, voiced through the Grand Inquisitor in his monologue before Christ: “And then, instead of giving clear-cut rules that would have set men’s consciences at rest once & for all, you put forward things that are unfamiliar, puzzling, & uncertain. . .. By so doing you acted as if you did not love mankind.” How should we use the things of this world? I think there are few clear-cut rules. Those that exist are are not hard to find, & your cautions are helpful here. When it gets more difficult? I would suggest that the Christian who is gradually being formed in faith, hope, & love, along with the other virtues, will, through prayer & discernment, be able to make prudent choices. Part of this prudence is to recognize the incarnational logic of the faith, that it is only through the material that we have access to the physical. “God likes matter,” CS Lewis wrote; “he created it.” The iconophiles in the 8th & 9th century understood something of this logic, as did Bl. John Paul II in his lectures on the theology of the body. This logic extends outward & forms the necessary foundation of our attitudes toward everything we’re talking about here.

          Including that righteous Kenyan coffee I mentioned.

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  5. jeff

    The funny thing is, we don’t need to “steal” the things of this world from non-Christians…for example, the ability to enjoy music is a gift from God to us, sometimes perverted by our Enemy…but it’s still ours, not his.

    Also, this article may help with ressentiment–it’s more of a resentment that includes feeling inferior or powerless, as I understand it, and can admittedly be said of many people who are trying to live the Christian life perfectly, without letting Christ in them live it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ressentiment

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