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Living vicariously with the Saints

DURING HIS 26 year reign as pontiff, John Paul II canonised 484 saints and beatified a further 1,338 individuals, thus placing them on the slow but sure road to sainthood.

His intention, no doubt, was to remind an age now notorious for its moral bankruptcy and ethical amnesia of those beacons of virtue that have illuminated the Church’s path for centuries.

This reminder, he hoped, would urge Christians today to pursue saintly lives of their own, whatever their station in life.

This perhaps was John Paul’s fiercest protest against Christianity’s current impotence, a clarion call for the Church to oppose the infiltration of the ‘spirit of the times’ into faith and virtue.

Nevertheless, much like the eastern European Communism he so despised, John Paul underestimated the resilience of Western culture.

Capitalism, or ‘the free market economy’, has proven itself more adaptive than any other cultural form, particularly in its uncanny ability to assimilate and neutralise every oppositional force, whether political, ethnic, environmental, or even moral-religious.

Take, for instance, the way that the old slogans of non-conformist youth culture, not to mention dissident figures such as Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin, are taken over and used to sell clothing brands like Industrie or Kenji Urban.

Or, along similar lines, the way that the causes of environmental conservation and Third World debt relief are made chic and eminently marketable by their association with the likes of George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Bob Geldof and, of course, Bono.

Not even religion is immune to the all-pervasiveness of capitalism.

Much Christianity and the now-oh-so-trendy practice of Buddhist meditation act like cultural pressure valves.

They provide forms of penance designed to alleviate the weight of guilt that accrues from our vocational promiscuity, so that we can carry on behaving as we did before.

Michael Moore was uncharacteristically observant when he wrote: “I think recycling is like going to church – you show up once a week, it makes you feel good, and you’ve done your duty. Then you can get back to all the fun of sinning!”

So why did John Paul’s elevation of so many moral exemplars not have the desired effect of inspiring Christian virtue?

Because he failed to recognise the way that such ‘saints’ function in our time.

Our cultural space is, after all, filled with saintly figures, people whose lives are more authentic than ours, in comparison to whom our existence is at best banal, and at worst futile and purposeless.

We call these people celebrities, and they range from the sublime (‘martyrs’ like Steve Irwin and Princess Di) to the ridiculous (Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise).

The best way of understanding how ‘saints’ function these days is by reference to Peter Weir’s 1998 blockbuster, The Truman Show.

The film’s hero, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), is the unknowing subject of a 24/7 reality television show that tracks every moment of his life in the idyllic, artificial town of Seahaven.

Both Truman and his environment are stunning, and entirely unreal: the colours are bright and distinct; the lines of the houses, picket-fences and lawns are sharp and clearly defined; the sky is always blue; etc.

In contrast to Truman, his audience is dull, overweight, set in drab grey-brown tones, engaged in the most menial tasks (soaking in a bath, knitting, monitoring security cameras). But they are all captivated by Truman’s life – even when he is asleep.

It is clear that the audience is living vicariously through Truman.

Their lives only have meaning through their voyeuristic involvement in Truman’s life.

This is the devastating logic of vicarious participation in our time.

Saints do not, in fact, inspire similarly virtuous behaviour, but rather voyeuristic passivity.

We feel better by our mere observation of their good deeds, as if we have participated in them.

So by listening to U2, we feel as though we have joined Bono in his crusade to eradicate Third World debt; by watching Steve Irwin’s memorial service, we have flagged our commitment to conservation.

To be a little more specific, we are urged, as a kind of acceptable form of penance, to engage in symbolic but ultimately pointless tasks (like making some negligible donation to charity).

We feel better for having supported a worthy cause, but the way that we are complicit in the economic blood-guilt of our culture remains unchallenged and unaffected.

And, if we’re not careful, our own worship can get caught in this same vicarious economy.

This is especially true in the case of some mega-churches.

By means of their prolonged, performance-like worship, along with the consistent elevation of the minister as an icon of faith and divine potency, these churches effectively stage a kind of ‘canned worship’.

Just as the actors on American sit-coms crack the jokes and the studio audience does the laughing for you, so too such churches do the worshipping and believing on your behalf.

All you have to do is attend and pay your money – they take care of the rest!

If anything, we need fewer ‘saints’ today, not more. Stripped of those celebrities who wear the responsibility for public virtue and private conscience, perhaps we will finally own the Christian duties of justice and mission for ourselves.

Scott Stephens is an author, theologian, and minister at Chermside Kedron Uniting Church and writes regularly for Journey

Photo : “Mother Diana”. Image by Osker Lau