Smiling and Religion

Someone told me a story of how they were at a wedding last year, and that during the course of dinner the head of a major Modern Orthodox institution told a Rosh Yeshiva that he does not smile enough. One should always be smiling. I have nothing against smiling, I do it often myself. But there was something interesting in this post on another blog that made me think of that wedding story. Here are selections from the other blog’s 12 points. It reminds me how hard it is to speak of Navardok today.

2. In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalization of a well ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.

3. The motif of late-capitalist society is the stylization of happiness, the cultivation of lifestyles from which every trace of sadness has been expunged. Peter Berger identified ‘the Protestant smile’ as part of Protestantism’s cultural heritage in the West. In a Catholic country like France, it is still considered crass to smile too often, or at strangers. Evangelical churchliness is the re-utilization of bare-toothed crassness. Our cultural obsession with health, happiness, and positive thinking is a secularization of the evangelical church service.

4. The cultural triumph of the smile leaves behind a trail of casualties. Where evangelical churches theologize happiness and ritualized the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracized. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person’s spiritual failure.

5. When the church’s theological rejection of sadness was secularized, sadness became a pathology requiring medical intervention. The medicalization of sadness is the final cultural triumph of the Protestant smile. If Luther or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky had lived today, we would have given them Prozac and schooled them in positive thinking. They would have grinned abortively – and written nothing. The truth of sadness is the womb of thought.
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8. I know a fellow who was interviewed for ordination in an American denomination. Asked to describe his hope for the church’s future, his eyes filled with tears and he admitted, ‘I don’t know if I have any hope for the church.’ Perplexed by this response, his ecclesiastical interviewers furrowed their brows, scribbled little notes and question-marks, conferred gravely about his fitness for ministry – though they ought to have asked for his prayers, or poured oil on his head, or sat at his feet and made him their bishop.

9. Where sadness is expunged from a culture, the cry for justice falls silent. Johnny Cash carried darkness on his back, refusing to wear bright clothes as long as the world is unredeemed. Why do we dress our priests in black? Are they not in perpetual mourning for a world that is passing away? Is not Christian joy carried out in the shadow of this sadness? In a culture of happiness, it is all the more necessary that our priests continue to dress in black, refusing the cheap comfort of bright vestments and the empty promise of the rainbow.

10. At the turn of the millennium, J. G. Ballard wondered how the next generation would perceive the 20th century: ‘My grandchildren are all under the age of four, the first generation who will have no memories of the present century, and are likely to be appalled when they learn what was allowed to take place. For them, our debased entertainment culture and package-tour hedonism will be inextricably linked to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, though we would never make the connection.’ How do we explain the fact that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are immediately succeeded by the cult of happiness and the triumph of the smile? How can it be that the worst century was also the happiest? Our children will interpret our happiness as blindness and self-forgetfulness. We have drugged ourselves against history; sadness is truthful memory.

12. The Bible promises the end of history and the end of sadness…This can be understood as eschatological promise only on the presumption that history is catastrophe, a vale of tears. Sadness is overcome through cosmic redemption. A culture without sadness is a culture without hope. The cure for sadness is God.

Full version here at Faith and Theology.

One response to “Smiling and Religion

  1. Great Article.

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