Friday, June 19, 2009
For ‘Modern Gals,’ Religion as Off-the-Rack Therapy
By PETER STEINFELS
Published: June 19, 2009
Please forgive the first-name greeting, but it seems the proper way to reply to your “Hi Peter” e-mail message of June 4.
What was surprising was not the informality of your note — everyone knows that for public relations folks, journalists are on an automatic first-name basis — but that it came from Marie Claire magazine. Fashion writing has not loomed large in this column.
“Today’s hard economic times,” you helpfully explained, “have a profound effect not only on our bank accounts but on our sense of hope and psychological well-being,” an insight, you must admit, that has not escaped millions of Americans, to count only those who still have bank accounts.
Still, you announced that it had inspired an article in the current issue of Marie Claire featuring accounts by “five modern career gals” of “how their belief in faith helped them through the hardest of struggles.”
The article is titled “Cheaper Than Therapy.”
The idea of faith as therapy, you probably know, is not exactly new. Fifty years ago, Norman Vincent Peale preached the power of positive thinking, and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen insisted that the Roman Catholic confessional was more effective than the psychoanalyst’s couch. And the language of healing, both physical and psychological, is prominent in many religious traditions.
Still, you should anticipate the objection that promoting religion as bargain-basement therapy is something of a category mistake, like publishing someone’s account of voting under the banner “More Engrossing Than Sudoku” or trumpeting romance as “Juicier Than Fish Sticks” or describing the joys of cooking as “Faster Than Gardening.”
Then there’s the word “cheap.” It doesn’t appear a lot elsewhere in these pages. This is not to complain about the items surrounding your article about the effect of today’s hard economic times on our sense of hope — the $4,100 skirt or the $4,995 dress or the $1,250 clutch or the $315 diamond-dust-based body treatment at one spa or the $250 head-to-toe feng shui scrub-down and massage at another.
After all, Marie Claire also features what it calls “steals” and “best buys,” although nothing that is “cheaper,” except of course faith. Be warned, however. Some grump will probably write you about the best-known religious use of “cheap” in recent times. It occurs in the opening sentence of “The Cost of Discipleship,” by the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “We are fighting today for costly grace.” Perhaps your “five modern career gals” are too young to have heard of Bonhoeffer; otherwise they might have felt nervous about their tendency to treat religious faith like comfort food or a fashion accessory. Tell them not to worry. Bonhoeffer was the kind of guy who wouldn’t know a Manolo Blahnik from a Vera Wang.
What remains puzzling, though, is exactly what their belief had to do with “today’s hard economic times” or how it “helped them through the hardest of struggles.”
The Jew among them seems mainly preoccupied by the glitches that a Hebrew first name creates for her dating life — it seems she has to rush to assure guys of her “pork-eating ways.” Worse, it sometimes provokes discussions about Israeli politics, including a tiff at a pizza party that “cast a major pall over the rest of the evening.”
Maybe Marie Claire ought to rethink its standards for “the hardest of struggles.”
The Muslim’s struggle is to find private places, like a dressing room at the Gap or a corner of an office at work or even the 14th-floor lactation room in the company’s building, to prostrate and say her afternoon prayers. For her, these prayers strike a balance between secular worries — “bills, deadlines, missing the latest episode of ‘Lost’ ”— and her sense of purpose and tradition. They are “also a welcome breather.”
All this makes sense, but when she writes that it “may seem like an ordeal,” you know that she is giving a special Marie Claire meaning to that word.
Then there is the Catholic, or “recovering Catholic,” as your fashion magazine knows is the fashionable term. Her hardest struggle, it appears, was initially with guilt over the sex she was enjoying during a semester abroad and then, years later, with a souring new marriage.
Because her youthful guilt was obviously the pope’s fault, she can retail some hoary anti-Catholic images: John Paul II “wrapping his infallible frame in a cashmere blanket” and “laying his head on a gilt-trimmed pillow,” all at the expense of hard-working parishioners back home “who turned over a chunk of their weekly take-home to ensure that J. P. II could maintain the lifestyle to which he’d grown accustomed.”
The bargain therapy comes when the disconsolate newlywed wanders into a Mass and discovers, can you believe this, a priest who sounds humane. Gratitude puts her “in the market for a new place to worship” but does not preclude an obligatory crack about pedophilia.
What ties these stories together, Jillian, is not struggling through hard times. It is a much better theme for a fashion magazine, the story of each author’s exercise of choice, of how she rejects one religious outlook for another or makes it clear that when traditional ties are maintained they won’t stand in the way of being a modern “career gal.”
O.K., no one expects Marie Claire to publish Augustine. One young woman does mention him, though not his “Confessions” or its motif that “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” After all, that was the story not of choice but of the slow, difficult recognition of having been chosen — a recognition that demands a changed life.
Sorry to turn serious, Jillian. But thanks very much for your press release. That was a great article on “When White-Collar Hubbies Go to Jail.”
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- I grew up in Chautauqua County, NY. I graduated from Edinboro University of Pennyslvania in 1981 with a BFA in Jewelry and Metalworking. I have been married 31 years. I currently run a small business with my husband. We both enjoy the outdoors and animals a great deal and live on a tiny farm in Western, NY.