The Feast of Fools
Recently, conservative talk-show host Erick Erickson offered a startling observation during what seems to be an ongoing attack against presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg: “But then he is an Episcopalian, so he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.”
I’m neither a regular reader nor listener of Erickson’s, though I’ve seen him quoted. He strikes me as not so much a trenchant thinker but as what he (like so many of his colleagues) really is: a ruthless advocate for his side.
No surprise there. Erickson is a lawyer, trained to dispute. That leaves him manifestly unqualified to sit in judgment of an entire denomination, though obviously, that hasn’t stopped him. I’m certain that without much digging I’d find Erickson expounding a vigorous, Bible-based version of Jesus‘ teaching that’s long on disapproval and declaring anathema and short on love, forgiveness and acceptance.
What bee, I wondered, had gotten in Erickson’s bonnet. I think I have a better idea now, and, like so much of the culture wars, you’ll have to venture back 50 years with me to the publication date of this book to see if you agree. Let’s review.
World War II was not ancient history, but a life-changing event for significant numbers of people only then entering their middle decades. There was the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. A fairly privileged segment of young people was in open revolt against what they saw as the world’s injustices, as others went off to fight the Vietnam War, the raging hot spot of the Cold War.
All the verities were, seemingly, under attack and, then as now, the legitimacy of an ‘Establishment‘ was being called into question. At the same time, the United States met its goal of landing a man on the moon, there were 3 days of peace, love and music in August, the Mets won the World Series in October, and the violence of the Weathermen, Altamont and Kent State had not yet happened. It was a tense and hopeful time.
Into this soup, Harvey Cox, B.A., B.D., Ph.D., theologian and faculty member at the Harvard Divinity School launched this, his second book. Cox had already achieved some notoriety for his first book, 1965’s The Secular City. In it, Cox–an ordained American Baptist minister–argued against defining the Church as an institution, focusing instead on the people of faith and their actions, and finding God in the secular.
Well, it was the 1960s and just a year later the nation’s leading newsweekly, Time magazine would ask on its cover, “Is God Dead?” There was plenty of liberation in the air across many denominations and Cox inhaled deeply. Not many theology books sell a million copies, but Cox struck a chord and did so. Then came the encore, sure to send Mr. Erickson and his like-minded brethren into orbit.
Cox begins with a description of a celebration he resurrects from medieval French history–the Feast of Fools. Victor Hugo fans may recognize both the merriment and the opening gambit–The Hunchback of Notre Dame begins with the same feast. It’s a holiday designed to let off steam by allowing the hoi polloi to swap places with the ruling elites: appropriating titles, assigning disparaging nicknames, dropping all sense of distance and hierarchy. It is, says Cox, a metaphor for a more appropriate relationship between us and God.
Over the course of ten chapters, Cox examines the role of festivity in humankind’s relations with God. He draws on a wide range of sources from social scientists like George Herbert Mead to philosopher-novelists like Albert Camus to composers like John Cage and dramatists like Antoine Artaud.
What there isn’t is a lot of is Jesus or scripture. I can hear the fundamentalists now: How preposterous is that? What kind of Christian theologian fails to talk about Jesus? And what’s all this talk about feasts and festivals? That sounds faintly Catholic. Some of this sounds nonsensical: ”Festivity resembles contemplation, because it is not just a means to something else.” (p. 104) How can I take this book seriously when it ends by telling me Jesus was a clown? In short, both the prescriptivists and the Jansenists will find plenty to complain about.
I find that somewhat ironic. When a friend turned to church-going I listened to a sermon or two by a star preacher she likes and attended her baptism. In the Roman Catholic tradition, homilies are short and anyone who talks for more than ten minutes is considered long-winded. But we give equal time to the Eucharist, and those preachers, rooted in Reform Theology, are all about the Word.
Boy, could they talk and so, finding myself at a lecture, I listened critically and found as much to question in their arguments as I did to enjoy in their presentations. They were good, but in the end, it was just chapter and verse. Erickson might have approved.
Cox is more my speed, forcing me to engage with a wide range of thinkers. I don’t read these things because they’re easy or fun (this is another volume I’ve carried around unread, until now, for thirty years), but to learn new ways of thinking. I eat up paradoxes like these:
“Myth is an essential part of religion, but religion is more than myth.” (p. 68)“But unless Christianity frees itself from its preoccupation with the past, it cannot even make contact with the formative forces of modern culture.” (p. 121)“He [man] finds himself in a changing unstable world but tries to arrange and order it so that he himself will not have to change.” (p. 134)
What else can a rule-seeking, judgment-meting Christian do but declare the writer of such sentences has but the most superficial understanding of their creed?
Cox, being the real deal, has anticipated this reaction. In contrasting monastic and festive approaches he claims “…, the monastic model, in which the oneness of Christendom is more helpful than the extreme Protestant sectarian idea in which each schismatic group claimed that it alone was vera ecclesia Christi.” (p. 91, emphasis added)
In short, Cox is moving towards a more inclusive theology that embraces, rather than turns its back on, modernity. In the years since publication, more fundamentalist views have gained prominence. Those folks are never going to accept that there’s humor in the Bible or that Jesus is a harlequin because He allows us to experience an alternative reality in which hope is transcendent.
And yet some of this has stuck. I’ve been in more than a couple of evangelical churches that have drum booths, full bands and as many screens as a Dave & Buster’s. The booths, in particular, seem to drive conservative Catholics crazy as they preserve ritual that risks losing a sense of celebration.
But those multi-media megachurches? Cox, who is still alive at age 90 and recommends this book as the one folks should read, seems to have gotten inside their heads, too.