NewsBusters Interview: Dana Gioia on Christian Retreat from the Culture

For decades, there has been a lot of discussion about a “cultural war,” primarily between people of traditional faith and those who see religion as something of little value. Whether war is quite the right metaphor to describe the phenomenon, there certainly is a lot of pressure on people who adhere to traditionalist opinions, as Phil Robertson of A&E’s Duck Dynasty can certainly attest.

Yet while opponents of traditional beliefs and a politically unbalanced media have certainly proved harmful to faith in the public square, those two groups cannot be entirely blamed for the less prominent place that Christians now have in American culture. According to poet and art critic Dana Gioia, Christians also have themselves to blame as well for basically withdrawing from the cultural scene.

Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, touched on this argument in an essay he published earlier this month in the excellent religious conservative journal First Things. In that piece, he urged Catholic writers to reclaim their literary heritage and “reoccupy their own tradition.”

Having read his piece, we decided to ask Gioia (pronounced JOY-a) to expand on his thoughts at greater length in an extended interview about the topic of Christian engagement with the arts.

As Gioia sees it, the retreat from the culture that Christians have made is the product of several things, one of which is the faithful becoming too engaged in their own sub-culture rather than trying to reach out and promote their values.

“They’re trying to balance church budgets, they’re trying to feed the poor,” he told me in our discussion. “They’re trying to do all these other things. It is not on their priority list.”

Even so, it is not necessarily the responsibility of religious congregational leaders to promote the arts, as Gioia notes in our discussion. The responsibility lies with the individual members, particularly non-clerical leaders. The unfortunate reality, as he sees it, is that Christians have gotten too engaged in worldly concerns like political action that they have neglected almost everything else. Whereas in the middle of the last century, one regularly saw the arts discussed in magazines aimed at the faithful, that no longer really is the case any more.

“Christians have been naïve to think that they can prosper in a society and not be engaged in cultural creation,” Gioia says. “Christians are naïve to think that they can be engaged positively in society and ignore culture. If you turn your back on the arts, essentially you are leaving all of those stories, those images, those forms of communication in the hands of others. And that’s what we’re seeing. People of faith have unambiguously lost the culture wars. They complain about it but they aren’t doing anything about it.”

That is not to say that people ought never to pay attention to politics but rather that, as Gioia says, many Christians have lost sight of the true power that art and media have to express ideas (including religious ones) in ways that can be meaningful to people who may have a different background or perspective.

Instead of encouraging a vibrant art culture which is inspired by faith, Christian leaders have been predominantly interested in explicitly devotional art, which while being more immediately useful in church meetings, has little importance to people who do not attend or believe. This is bad for society because not only are many positive values being improperly construed as being explicitly sectarian in nature, they are also being lost among what Gioia calls “lowest common denominator” products that are made by the global entertainment industry.

Despite the fact that the Christian cultural presence is much smaller than it used to be, there is no reason that this is something that has to be a permanent trend. As Gioia notes, it was formerly the case that writers who were Catholic in this country had almost no visibility whatsoever but that changed after World War II. There is no reason to suppose that the present decline is one which is inevitable either.

A transcript of our discussion follows.

 

SHEFFIELD: Let’s talk about the overall thesis of your First Things piece. You think there’s been a decline in the influence and cultural relevance of—and you specifically focus on Catholic writing and literature—but later you go into the larger Christian issue. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about the article and what it is that you’re discussing?

DANA GIOIA: My essay examines a significant cultural paradox in the United States which is that although Catholics are now the largest religious denomination in the United States, representing at least a quarter of the U.S. population—they have a huge financial and social position in this country, they have actually almost disappeared in a cultural sense in a positive way. If you go back 60 years ago there was a vibrant, rich, cultural presence in all the arts. In literature, Catholics were everywhere: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Burton, Ernest Hemingway, et cetera.

They were writing best-selling books, they were winning literary awards and, most important, they were representing the Catholic worldview, both spiritual and social, as part of the fabric of America. Literature, nowadays, by contrast, Catholics are almost invisible in the cultural scene except for ex-Catholics who are attacking the church. I thought that this was a paradox worth examining.

SHEFFIELD: And what were your findings on that?

GIOIA: Well, I think what we’ve seen is this very strange retreat the church has made—both internally less confident about itself, less presence in culture, which represents a complete historical turnaround for the Catholic church which was seen as the natural home for artists; I mean the glory of Catholicism has been its presence in material culture: architecture, paintings, sculpture, literary, music. But it’s become a rather generic and anonymous cultural presence now.

SHEFFIELD: Later in the piece, you note that there seems to be a similar decline in the Christian influence in the arts as well.

GIOIA: The cultural situation for Catholics is very similar to all Christian faiths in the United States right now. The difference was that if you go to early American literature, it’s all Protestant.

Catholics were relatively latecomers in terms of American culture because Catholicism was an immigrant religion, it’s the faith of the poor immigrants from other countries. And so we arrived later on the scene. I mean Catholic literature really begins at World War II and suddenly becomes this huge presence. You even see it with Hollywood: great directors like Frank Capra, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock who are giving these moral tales of courage and determination but all Christian faiths right now are conspicuously absent from culture. And this is a historical anomaly.

For Catholicism, it represents an abandonment of the tradition that we think being embodied in Michelangelo, Raphael, Mozart, Bramante, El Greco, as this religion which uses art to reach people. Art operates differently from conceptual thought. Art speaks to us in the fullness of our humanity, it isn’t saying this is this cold, abstract theological truth, it is giving it to us in a way which simultaneously allows us to feel it with our intellect, our emotions, our physical body, our senses, our memory, our intuition, our imagination without the need to divide ourselves into pieces. That holistic, intuitive power in some ways makes art the most powerful means of human expression.

SHEFFIELD: Well there’s that old cliché a picture is worth a thousand words.

GIOIA: Exactly. One of the points I’m trying to make in my essay is that art matters. That the stories, the songs, the images by which we represent reality have an enormous influence on society and on the future. And when some of the largest groups—Catholics, all Christians—no longer have their stories, their songs, their images, their representations of reality available to the general culture, the culture is impoverished.

And I do believe this is true even if you don’t like Catholics. Even if you don’t like Christians, you should be concerned when the diversity of American culture or the arts is limited because what will be left is the lowest common denominator of commercial entertainment. There’s a myth that exists among secular people who dislike Christianity, they believe that if they can tear down Christianity, it will be replaced by scientific rationalism, that the whole world will share a kind of rational, positivistic view of reality. This really isn’t true because when you take away spirituality from society or human expression, those spiritual hungers remain. It isn’t replaced by rationalism, it’s actually replaced by shoddier, less responsible things: paranormal teen romances, Wiccan internet sites, superstition, and fortune-telling.

And what we’ve seen really in the United States is an extraordinary dumbing down of our spiritual sense of reality from these great, responsible, profound traditions to kind of pop new age.

SHEFFIELD: Before we talk about the media component of all that, why don’t we discuss sort of the supply side? I mean that in your piece you argue that the Catholic Church itself and, to some extent, Protestant churches have become less interested sponsoring the arts, even though that was a very big tradition and very honorable one of the church subsidizing the arts to a great degree.

GIOIA: Let me say something that will probably anger a lot of Catholics. It’s hard for me to blame anti-Catholic, secular critics. They exist. But I guess I can’t blame somebody who doesn’t like Catholics for not liking Catholics. I can argue with them but I don’t look to them for the future of the Church. The real problem is within the Catholic Church itself which has abandoned art as one of the modes of human expression.

There’s something that happened during the last 50 years of Catholicism where it became more abstract, more conceptual, more theological. You see it in the hymns where they’ve gone from great music to very kind of slogan-type songs with no musical or poetic distinction whatsoever. The Catholic Church abandoned one of its greatest strengths, it dumbed down down the liturgy, it dumbed down the Church and we’re now seeing the consequences of this. The Church no longer really has this powerful way of making its message heard in the world. And the message matters even to non-Catholics because what both art and the great faiths do is that they call us to a higher sense of our humanity. They hold us up to a higher moral and spiritual image.

I don’t believe that pop culture, Kill Bill, Lady Gaga, violent video games do this. They pander to the worst in our humanity. And so we’ve seen this moral, imaginative cultural trend in our society which hurts everyone whether they’re Christian or not. And Christians, Catholics, I think need to step forward and re-inhabit their traditional place in the culture. Now we’re lucky because we do have some very great artists alive right now. There’s Marilynne Robinson, the novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, is one of the greatest living American writers. We’ve got wonderful Catholic writers as different as Richard Rodriguez, Allison McDermott, Ron Hanson, Tobias Wolf. These people are writing major books. The funny thing though is that they get almost no acknowledgment from within the ranks of the Catholic community.

If you’re a Catholic writer who’s making a reputation nowadays, it’s not going to be made from the Catholic culture, it’s going to be made by the secular culture and that is ironic. But the secular culture is less and less interested in that, and less and less friendly.

SHEFFIELD: And so the Church itself, what do you see as the impetus behind the withdrawal?

GIOIA: Well first of all there’s a couple things. First of all, the Church has a lot on its mind, some of it good and some of it bad. The Church has been embroiled in scandals of which it should quite rightly be ashamed. But also, the Catholic Church is still the church of the poor. When I go to mass, I’m mostly with immigrants. I’m with the people who have come to this country who don’t have much of a church. It’s very concerned with poverty, it’s very concerned with social justice, but if you do this at the expense of everything else, I think the Church is kind of reduced to an institution for social work—which is important but it’s part of an overall view of reality. A lot of this also comes from Vatican II where the Church sort of tried to disengage itself from the past but what happened is that, in trying to, as they say in Italian, have this aggiornamento, this updating, it threw the baby out with the bathwater. And they were left with, if you look at the Catholic Church, productions of the Catholic Church in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, you see terrible architecture, maudlin painting, godawful music and pedestrian liturgy. It’s not surprising that tens of millions of people stopped attending services because they became pedestrian rather than seraphic.

SHEFFIELD: And so to some extent you’re arguing that—and this would apply not just to Catholicism but religions that are trying to “modernize” themselves—by allegedly attempting to connect with current issues actually may be making themselves less relevant.

GIOIA: They are. The power of faith is almost an odd thing. It’s an experience—people who are people of faith I think will recognize what I’m saying—you experience something both ancient and new. Something absolutely of the moment but also something that brings you back 2,000 years to the time of Christ and the Caesars. And it’s that feeling of simultaneously present and historical continuity that’s part of the power of the Christian message—and obviously it brings you forward in time to eternity, we hope. And when you lose this, and it becomes another kind of ephemeral, novel experience, why not stay home and watch the game?

But let me say something, and this has gotten me in trouble with a lot of Catholics, I’m not looking to the bishops, I’m not looking to the Church to renew Catholic culture. It’s going to be done by Catholic artists. It’s not going to be done by Christian churches, it’s going to be done by Christian artists. Artists need to take responsibility in a sense for their own traditions. Creative artists are going to lead to this. Either they will solve this or it won’t be solved. If I looked to the bishops rehabilitate Catholic culture, I think I’m naïve if not downright stupid.

Once again, it’s not to be disrespectful of the hierarchy, these are good men who are trying very hard to do good jobs. They’re not trained in culture, they have neither the—it’s neither a priority nor an expertise that they have. They’re trying to balance church budgets, they’re trying to feed the poor. They’re trying to do all these other things. It is not on their priority list. But for artists, I think that an artist’s priority should be to create the best art possible of the greatest profundity which can reach people in powerful and meaningful ways. For artists of faith, I think that means that they are going to be touching the deepest spiritual cultural sources within their own pasts.

You can see how powerfully it does when you see it with Catholics, with Protestants, with Jews when they write out of the center of their tradition they have an enormous force.

SHEFFIELD: In terms of deciding what is profound, though, to a large extent that is the role of an external force. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is relevance or quality, isn’t it? In other words, to what extent do you see the media as being a cause for the sort of decline of Catholic and Christian mainstream literature?

GIOIA: There’s no question that at the moment, much of the mainstream media is overtly anti-Catholic. There has been a kind of continuous assault. You see it in articles criticizing the Church or not. But once again—I could point to this in the media but if Catholics are unwilling to complain about it or not willing to answer back, then we deserve what we get. If what you believe is not worth insisting on, it’s not even worth fighting over, then it can’t be that important to you.

So I think that there’s been a media negativity but it’s been, sadly, matched by Catholic and Christian passivity. We have to take responsibility for telling our own stories better. And we have to understand that we’re in a media environment that’s increasingly anti-Christian. We all know this.

SHEFFIELD: So what does that mean though? As somebody who has been a media analyst for a long time, it seems to me that when I look at where people of faith are putting their money into, they tend not to put it into cultural institutions or things like literary prizes or funding television shows. Things like creating websites.

GIOIA: You are so right. I mean you are absolutely on the money. Christians have been naïve to think that they can prosper in a society and not be engaged in cultural creation. Christians are naïve to think that they can be engaged positively in society and ignore culture. If you turn your back on the arts, essentially you are leaving all of those stories, those images, those forms of communication in the hands of others. And that’s what we’re seeing. People of faith have unambiguously lost the culture wars. They complain about it but they aren’t doing anything about it.

Once again, I cannot blame an atheist for disagreeing with me. I assume it’s their sincere beliefs. What I can blame is us for being so naïve and so ignorant to think that we can trust people who dislike us to tell our stories fairly. That just seems to me common sense. I believe that cultures should argue, that cultures should have a kind of lively discussion about these things. But if you’re going to be quiet in cultural discussions, don’t complain about other people misrepresenting you.

SHEFFIELD: Do you see any sort of correlation between the recent increase in political activism among Christians that that has sort of taken away the money or the time that might have been put into culture?

GIOIA: Yes, Christians have become extraordinarily active in partisan politics. If you read both the Catholic and Protestant press or even the academic press, they’re obsessed with politics. It’s all politics. And they ignore everything else. They ignore the arts, they ignore culture. And they don’t understand that that is a necessary ingredient for cultural awareness, cultural change. If all of your argumentation takes place in partisan politics, don’t be surprised if Christianity is usurped by partisan politics.

I’m very amused now by all the daily arguments you read in the press about is Pope Francis on the right, is Pope Francis on the left? The metaphors of right and left are about 300 years old. Christianity is 2,000 years old. What I believe Francis is asking us is to be Christians which actually transcends partisan politics. Christians, Catholics should get involved in politics but not become enslaved by secular politics. And one of the ways in which we can communicate a transcendent vision, a human rather than a political vision is through art. With it someone, a non-Catholic or non-Christian can read Dante’s Divine Comedy, can look at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, can listen to the masses of Mozart with profound spiritual, intellectual, and artistic profit because what they do is bring the tangibility of these truths in a way that sort of sidesteps all the ideological barriers. And so Christians right now are losing the cultural wars by not even fighting them. They occupy this very narrow, ideological, partisan political territory and they don’t understand why that’s ineffective.

SHEFFIELD: And fundamentally, it seems to me to be a violation of the idea that “my kingdom is not of this world,” to be placing all of your attentions into the political atmosphere and ignore everything else seems to be a fundamental breaking of that understanding.

GIOIA: Stories have enormous power in terms of determining our sense of our lives, of our destinies, our moral values. You think of a profound and great Catholic writer like J.R.R. Tolkien, who never mentions Christianity in his great works; he gives stories, creates characters and situations which vividly communicate great moral and spiritual truths. The Lord of the Rings is a story of redemption and this has enormous power on the culture.

Now there obviously is more explicitly Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh but these stories matter because they communicate the sense in a vivid way that a hundred years later is still equally powerful versus yesterday’s newspapers which are already out of date. So that’s why I think we have to look at artists to reintegrate into the culture. The church leaders, the church founders, they’re caught up in these power games that are really quite short-sighted and parochial.

SHEFFIELD: So how do you think that this happened, that people became so preoccupied with such mundane affairs?

GIOIA: These things happened over time. What I tried to do in my essay in First Things was to say go back 60 years right around World War II, we see this great awakening of the Catholic imagination in the United States. It’s extraordinary. I mean there is the emergence of a dozen great writers and a couple of dozen of really first-rate writers all at once. And they begin, in a sense, to change the very nature of American literature. And they’re doing this at the same time that Jewish writers are coming into the fore and African-American writers as well. There’s a redefinition of what American culture is.

Most Catholics have a grandparent from another country, many of them parents from another country. Many of them are raised, like I was, by people who didn’t speak English as a native language. And so as we come into the culture, are becoming better educated, what’s happening is that there was a great pressure, because America has always been a kind of mildly anti-Catholic, to assimilate, to disguise our roots.

Similarly there has been a rise of secularism, this trend to secularize society which is now kind of overtly atheistic movement. And I can’t really criticize them for what they believe but one has to recognize them for what they are and what they do. They hate Catholicism, they hate Christianity. So you see this rise of secularism, especially among the cultural elite where to be a public Christian is to be shamefully reactionary.

And simultaneously with that there is a third thing which is the rise of an increasingly vulgar commercial entertainment culture: violent video games, pornography, violent films, really the lowest common denominator of commercial entertainment.

So you take these three trends: Catholic assimilation, growing atheism, and the rise of all-powerful global commercial entertainment and it sort of overwhelmed Christians. And I would say, and some people would disagree, that on top of this is Vatican II where the Church decides to break with the past, they’re going to update the Church. And they end up throwing away a lot of the best things about tradition along with customs that were probably in need of an update. And you see this change in American Catholic history, attendance at mass falls off, about half the clergy and religious people leave their churches and become secular. So you see this great turnaround there. And I think the Catholic Church is still recovering from that.

So that’s a pretty complicated explanation but I always am suspicious whenever people give a single reason for any sort of historical phenomenon.

SHEFFIELD: Earlier you were talking about a sort of cultural withdrawal on the part Christians but I think some people who might be reading this might respond that actually there is more Christian music than ever before, what would be your response to that?

GIOIA: There’s more bad music of all kinds than ever before. I think that if I as a Catholic were to say what was one of the great high points of Christian popular music, I would go back to the gospel music which was largely African-American but also Southern white music of the 1920s through the 1940s. The commercial Christian pop of today by comparison, I think, is thin gruel.

SHEFFIELD: And it doesn’t seem to have the ability to attract non-Christians in terms of the musical terms.

GIOIA: No, absolutely. If you take an art that is intrinsically American as the blues, you will find in blues a great Christian Protestant fundamentalist tradition and this is music which moves people all over the world. I don’t see Christian pop having any influence whatsoever outside of its narrow sociological category. Now perhaps there is some great genius of whom I am unaware but on more than one occasion, I have listened to Christian music stations to hear what they’re playing and there’s almost nothing that strikes me as rising above the level of mediocre. I have listened, however, to hundreds early 20th century gospel and these are among the masterpieces of American music.

SHEFFIELD: And you think that it is a retreat from higher culture then?

GIOIA: Oh no, I don’t think the gospel singers of that great era saw themselves as rivals to Mozart and Pallestrina but what there was, if you listen to the Carter family or many of these black a capella quintets or quartets, they came out of an authentic local folk tradition and they brought great creativity and personality to it. By contrast now when you listen to Christian rock, what you’re hearing is a kind of global, placeless, commercialized product. Whether it’s being recorded in California, Georgia, or Iowa, it sounds exactly the same. When you think of the great gospel music of the early part of the 20th century, it comes out of a real place with real people being part of a specific cultural moment speaking out of that region’s cultural memory.

If I were to make an argument as to why Christian culture in this world matters, is that it is one of the few balancing forces to globalized, standardized commercial entertainment. And even the movies nowadays aren’t even made for America. They’re made for a global audience so they have to dumb down the text so people can understand it. They have to make the stereotypes broader, they have to make the pace faster, they have to target them at the lowest common denominator.

By contrast, the blues, which was created in the poorest state in the U.S. in the poorest part of that state by the poorest and most marginalized people it essentially used the meager resources that it had to create a kind of magnificence. There’s popular are and there’s high art and I tend to believe there is a difference between the two but in either case, quality, authenticity, personality, and expressive power are the ways by which you judge it. And in that case, I think that the best days of Christian popular music seem to be behind us. Although I hope that there might be a renaissance.

SHEFFIELD: What about the idea, you mentioned Tolkien earlier that he was focusing on values in his works—

GIOIA: You’re making a very specific argument and I hope people understand that when I talk about Catholic literature or Christian literature, I’m not talking about explicitly religious devotional literature. My idea of a Catholic novel is not one where it has the Father, Son, Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary as characters. It is literature that is created out of a Catholic or Christian worldview in which a certain perspective on reality is dramatized. In that sense, Tolkien is a perfect representative figure.

The terminology of Christianity does not exist anywhere in Tolkien’s great novels but yet The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are deeply insightful and profound moral stories, stories of redemption, stories of the battle between good and evil. They are stories of the complexities of trying to do the right thing in a difficult and changing world. And in that sense, they could not be more Catholic. And that, I think, is what we’re losing.

For example if you look at the great Catholic filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Ford, generally there’s no religion per se in the films. But what you see is a profoundly Catholic sense that the individual finds himself in a fallen world surrounded by imperfect humanity in which there is a sense of evil which one has to fight in a meaningful way without sinking to the level of the evil itself. And these, I dare say if you are Catholic or not, which call forth from the audience a sense of living up to their own best potential. And that’s as opposed to a work of art which panders to the weakest, most corrupt, and most fallible parts within us. I hope that doesn’t sound horribly moralizing to people but I believe that art matters and that good and evil matter. And a healthy society is one which cultivates the best potential of its own members.

SHEFFIELD: Is it possible that some of the idea of appealing to the lowest common denominator may have crept in to the Christian-derived art traditions such that things which are explicitly devotional have crowded out art that is more about values?

GIOIA: I have to confess that I do not read devotional Christian novels, I’ve seen whole sections of them. But my sense from the little that I have seen is that Christian literature has become another commercial category for global corporations. Now let me say that there are great Catholic and Christian writers that are alive right now. The interesting thing, however, is that most of them seem to be more or less invisible to the Christian culture. And it’s because the churches do not recognize and celebrate these people.

SHEFFIELD: But might that be because they are looking for devotional literature because it has more direct value to them?

GIOIA: Well they are looking at devotional literature if they are looking at literature at all. I think that, by and large, most of American Christianity pays almost no attention to artistic culture—a little bit to the music because they have to have it in their services, but that gives the fact that music in Catholic services is so awful even less of an excuse. But for literature, for theater, for the visual arts, there’s almost no interest at all.

So they neglect this and then believers complain about the overall direction of the culture. Of course the culture is going to become weaker if people of faith do not participate. And once again, I’m talking about championing the works of art in which it is the content that sells and not the moral intentions of the people who are doing it. A great work of Christian literature, a story by Flannery O’Connor, a poem by Dante, these things have appeal beyond a belief community because they stand as independent works of the imagination that explore the profoundest aspects of humanity.

SHEFFIELD: Well it seems to me that it’s been a common trend since politics became professionalized that it’s tended to sort of intrude into areas where it doesn’t really belong and kind of degrades those areas and what people were doing in them before—and thereby making them less powerful and less meaningful to those who might have a different political viewpoint. This was a trend that started with the left but it’s been copied by the right.

GIOIA: Yes. And American culture nowadays has become almost entirely politicized. Anything that anyone does or says, people begin to look for covert political signals which I think is not only an over-extension of politics, it is a fundamental mistake about the nature of art. Art does not communicate ideologically. You can have ideological elements in art but it’s quite possible for somebody on the right to be very moved by a successful work of art about leftist revolutionaries in the same way that it’s quite possible for an atheist to be moved by an artistically powerful story about priests or nuns.

That is because art communicates to us in a pre-conceptual way. A story, an image communicates to us intuitively, it talks to our memory and our imagination more than it does to our ideological framework.

And I think this is not only good for humanity, it is necessary for humanity. It means that people of different ideologies, different faiths, different creeds at least for a moment can feel from the inside how someone quite differently from them feels. This is one of the hugely important humanizing aspects of art. I think entertainment does not try to do that and certainly not with the kind of power that art does.

SHEFFIELD: And on the opposite side, one can see two areas that sort of started out as very politicized but then later created less political versions which then became much more successful. I’m talking about feminism and the gay rights movement. The only success that those movements have ever really enjoyed politically began after they realized that removing a lot of the Marxist opinions and political overtones that were very much present in the beginning of those movements.Not to say that they’re perfectly non-political now, of course.

GIOIA: Yes. Being gay is a personal reality that spans both left and right. Being a woman is a physical, psychological, cultural reality which overarches politics. What happens is that when you try to take these complex, human phenomena and put them into a very narrow, ideological box—one of my problems with Catholicism right now is that inside Catholicism there is the battle between left and right. Everything is seen in terms of left and right. And the people that begin talking in these terms, after about five minutes, they aren’t even talking about Catholicism anymore. They aren’t talking about religion any more. They aren’t talking about Christ anymore. They are talking about the last election.

And I think that is not only a misunderstanding of the vision of Catholicism but it is a ridiculous reduction thereof.

SHEFFIELD: Well it is. And it is completely stripping away what is the primary value of religion: it’s about how you should live your own individual life—

GIOIA: Yes.

SHEFFIELD: —rather than this is how you should vote and this is what policies should be implemented. That isn’t not what religion is primarily about.

GIOIA: When I go to mass, my main parish is about one-third Filipino, one-third Mexican, and one-third everyone else. Most of these people are the working poor. When I was in Washington, the parish I was in had about a quarter of the people were homeless. But when I sit beside them, when I kneel beside them, when I worship beside them, it reminds me that all of us are on this world together. You are part of this same human race, like it or not, we’re all part of the same community. And I have a human responsibilities to them.

This is a primal kind of awareness. It doesn’t mean I want this bill to pass in Congress instead of the other. It is that sense of that constant spiritual awakening or alertness or a moral call to attention which for me is one of the most powerful things about going to mass. And all of us are brought there sharing a common belief, a common sense of our own lives in the world as pilgrims and sinners.

And if you say in that context ‘Are you Republican or Democrat?’ the response would inevitably be ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ That is so removed from the kind of existential shift that happens in mass that it has no bearing.

So anyway, I am very impatient with this but it doesn’t mean I don’t have my own personal politics, it doesn’t mean that I don’t take politics seriously but there are things which transcend politics.

But this takes us back into art. I have no problem with the marketplace, I think the marketplace does very valuable things and is one of the reasons that this country is as prosperous as it is. But the purpose of culture is to tell us what should be taken out of the marketplace, what are those things that are so important that we don’t put a price on them. And I think what we’ve seen in this country is a failure of the culture in that it’s simply let the marketplace decide a lot of things that it really shouldn’t decide. And I say that as a believer in the free market. But the market is simply the mechanism, it’s not a set of values.

SHEFFIELD: Sure, capitalism is inherently morally neutral and can be used in conjunction with any sort of morality you want to put on top of it or parallel to it.

GIOIA: But most educated people in this country, I believe, feel relatively distant from contemporary artistic culture. They say ‘Well I know some people who like to hear this stuff, who like to hear this stuff but for me...’

So the arts have lost, for the most part, a direct engagement with most people. And so I think as poet myself, as a critic, that the primary job of the 21st century is to recreate a real relationship between the artist and the audience, between the arts and the culture. And in order to do that, I think, a lot of cultural energy, a lot of things that have been taken out of the arts—they are very elitist in their remote form—need to be reintroduced. There is a lot that artists can learn from entertainment.

SHEFFIELD: Dana Gioia, thanks for joining us.

GIOIA: Thanks for having me. And let me just say one more thing, if anyone who doesn’t believe that there is great, truly great, sacred art being created should listen to the music of Morten Lauridsen, his works “Lux Aeterna,” or his motet “O Magnum Mysterium.” These works are of such transcendent beauty that when people hear them, they are changed.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013