Champions She Shall Never Want

I recently decided to leave Mockingbird. I do not mean that I was convinced over […]

I recently decided to leave Mockingbird. I do not mean that I was convinced over a bourbon-fueled colloquy with a recent Catholic convert that Sylvester Prierias was unimpeachably correct to respond to Luther’s attack on indulgences by defending papal authority. Nor do I mean that I brushed up on recent Pauline scholarship and determined that Luther’s existential read of Romans is passé. Least of all do I mean, by leaving Mockingbird, that the Mainline Protestant status quo—with its newfangled gospels—holds any lingering appeal. By leaving Mockingbird, I simply mean to relate what it was like, just a few months ago now, to leave the recent Mockingbird conference itself, hosted by Calvary St. George’s church in Manhattan.

Indeed, having already related arriving to my first Mockingbird conference fresh from a disheartening visit to a historic church converted into a mini-mall, I figured a chronicle of my departure from the same conference, albeit five years on, would not be out of place. And so, after a weekend of experiencing grace refracted through dozens of new and unexpected friends, where the air was light with the ease of lifted burdens, I set off to visit that ex-church once again, to see what has become of the site that launched me into the Mockingbird orbit in the first place.

What I found was as perfect an illustration of life without grace as any novelist could have invented. It seems that what the Church of the Holy Communion had become—the Limelight shops—has now failed. There was, after all, an unforeseen consequence of replacing the Eucharist with what was there advertised as a “slice of heaven” from the deconsecrated sanctuary pizza shop: Pizza makes you fat! And so, the latest incarnation of famed architect Richard Upjohn’s exquisite Gothic jewel is as an exercise parlor where sins, at least of the dietary variety, can be cycled away. Feigning potential customer status, I was even given a tour. The confessionals are now changing booths, even retaining their crosses. “It is no longer the frumpy suburban self who lives,” customers must recite to themselves as they suit up for a workout, “but the toned and chiseled, curiously appealing urban bachelor who lives in me.”

Though I heard invigorating pulses of sophisticated electronica and the amplified directives of a wellness coach behind closed doors, I regret to say I was not permitted to enter the Sancta Sanctorum to behold a workout. Though I did notice that one of the original stained glass windows survives in a stairwell, and that the rest of the iconography has been supplemented by the cast of characters from Monster Mash.

In short, what was once a Midtown beacon of grace has, after stints as a poetry platform, a rehab clinic, a notorious nightclub and a shopping mall, now become a sweat mill of self-justification, presided over by Satan himself, leavened by a hipster’s wink, but still spiked with a dead serious message: “You damn well better look good naked.”

Let me be clear. While I don’t deny that people need a place to exercise, such an experience is one of the reasons why Mockingbird retains a continual appeal: There is no reason any of this should be happening. Mainline Protestantism, everyone knows, is the butt of the savvy and serious Christian’s joke, a treasury of object lessons for those penning triumphant histories of American Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Secularism. And what better illustration of such an epic failure than the Church of the Holy Communion? As the congregation declined in the 1970s, its remaining members joined Calvary St. George’s, which I would have thought was just playing down the clock, buying a few years until it was inevitably converted into a nightclub, gym or boutique as well. After all, that dead churches don’t preach the gospel is as sure as the subtitle to the fifth installment of the POTC franchise: Dead Men Tell No Tales. And yet, Calvary St. George’s today, especially when hosting the annual Mockingbird conference, pulses with life—evoking the days when the Church of the Holy Communion was a witness to something more than fitness.

I imagine Catholic and Orthodox Christians—converts from Protestantism especially—would respond with a knowing smile, “But how long will it last?” And they would be right to ask. Grace, of course, is threatening, and places that uphold it shine with a splendor that rarely endures. For example, Blaise Pascal’s defense of seventeenth-century proponents of grace, the Jansenists, was undeniably brilliant (and is wittily summarized, incidentally, in Alan Jacobs’ cultural history of Original Sin). Pascal pulled no punches as he ripped into the Jesuits and Dominicans in Les provinciales:

That victorious grace, which was waited for by the patriarchs, predicted by the prophets, introduced by Jesus Christ, preached by St. Paul, explained by St. Augustine, the greatest of the fathers, embraced by his followers, confirmed by St. Bernard, the last of the fathers, supported by St. Thomas, the angel of the schools, transmitted by him to [the Dominican] order, maintained by so many of your fathers, and so nobly defended by your monks under popes Clement and Paul—that efficacious grace, which had been committed as a sacred deposit into your hands, that it might find, in a sacred and everlasting order, a succession of preachers, who might proclaim it to the end of time—is discarded and deserted for interests the most contemptible.

But of course, Pascal and the Jansenists lost, and lost badly, as grace so often does. “There were powerful reasons,” explains Leszek Kołakowski, “why the Roman Church needed, in order to keep its might, to get rid of the Augustinian legacy.” Perhaps aspects of Catholicism’s choice to “de-Augustinize” itself (as LK memorably puts it) in Pope Clement XI’s 1713 bull Unigenitus were justified. Double predestination, including that lamentable L in Calvin’s TULIP (Limited Atonement), is a regrettable and, I would argue, unnecessary consequence of a focus on grace—which, praise be to God, Karl Barth has since corrected. That said, the suppression of the Jansenists was an undeniably sordid affair, and helped prepare the ground for the next century’s secular revolt. Pascal died before his fortieth birthday, knowing his cause had been defeated. But he also issued a prophecy of sorts that applies to the twenty-first century as well:

It is time for God to raise up intrepid disciples of the Doctor of grace [Augustine], who, strangers to the entanglements of the world, will serve God for God’s sake. Grace may not, indeed, number the Dominicans [or Jesuits] among her champions, but champions she shall never want (elle ne manquera jamais de défenseures); for, by her own almighty energy, she creates them for herself. She demands hearts pure and disengaged; nay, she herself purifies and disengages them from worldly interests, incompatible with the truths of the Gospel (54-55; 345).

This is not to say that Mockingbird is what Pascal had hoped for. (I imagine he’d have happily directed his satire at our frangible pop culture alliance.) Still, if there is any candidate on the American Christian scene for “champions of grace” at the present moment, Mockingbird comes close. Perhaps Mockingbird too will go the way of Jansenism. And if so, it should be remembered that this was never supposed to happen anyway. But in the meantime, effort expended at becoming “intrepid disciples of the Doctor of grace” is time well spent, if only to help other traditions to recognize grace as well, which we Christians are always finding new ways to bury. Considering how many of us are stuck on the Monster Cycle of self-justification, grace needs all the champions she can get.

Prof. Milliner’s 2017 Mockingbird talk can be viewed here:

Hearing Law, Seeing Gospel: A Mockingbird History of Art ~ Matthew J. Milliner from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

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7 responses to “Champions She Shall Never Want”

  1. The fate of the Church of the Holy Communion is close to my heart as a tragedy and sin of the church. As a student in The General Theological Seminary from 1968-1971 I was blessed to visit the parish just a few blocks from Chelsea Square. It should be shrine to it’s great founding Rector, William Augustus Muhlenberg, one of the most faithful, creative, innovative prophets of the church, long before his causes of liturgical enrichment (weekly Eucharist, the early service, candles/cross/flowers/vesture on the altar, a religious order for women, major social work for the poor and city children, new hymns, the founding of St. Luke’s Hospital, and the cause of ecumenism became commonplace. Thank for a thoughtful article. Holy Communion is a symbol of the decay and faith in the American church.

  2. Paula S says:

    Does Mockingbird pay this fellow?
    He is definitely one of the family.?

  3. David Zahl says:

    The check is in the mail, Dr. Milliner. 😉 Wowza.

    *But seriously, what a deeply, deeply encouraging/inspiring post to read on my first day back in the office. And those Pascal quotes! To use the parlance of our times, I just can’t even. And of course, while I’d never in a million years deign to consider Mbird occupying a place in the Jansenist lineage, I could scarcely dream of a higher compliment. Thank you.

  4. Nate Mills says:

    This is superb!

  5. R-J says:

    My wife of 19 years and I met in coatcheck line at Limelight, which means, when necessary, we can say we met at church;)

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