Thursday, June 02, 2005

A New Magazine, Plus Thrifty Protestants Vs. Lazy Catholics

There's a fairly new magazine (it seems to be at its third issue) online called In Character . It bills itself as a magazine of "everyday virtues" and each issue is built around a theme--so far, creativity, thrift, and purpose, with loyalty up next. What I've sampled so far is pretty good, certainly better than the dreck in many women's magazines. Gregory Wolfe's article "In God's Image: Do Good People Make Good Art?" is very good and is of particular interest to Flannery O'Connor fans. (NRO reprinted it in a more accessible font size, so I recommend reading it there.) I also enjoyed Damien Cave's history of thrift stores and the reminiscing in "You Kill It, You Eat It and Other Lessons of My Thrifty Childhood".

That last article touches on thrift's relation to religion. Thrift is usually associated with Protestantism and "the Protestant work ethic". But today's evangelicals are usually just as consumeristic as their secular brethren; let's not even ask about "liberal" Protestants. The author says that, while we can no longer depend on religion to bring back the virtue of thrift, "It is within Catholic social teaching that one finds currently the strongest case being made on behalf of what is reasonably called thrift as a theologically grounded virtue." This, in spite, Catholicism's traditional reputation of encouraging slacking off by having all those holy days and religious festivals.

There's a thesis to be written on the subject of how Protestantism came to be associated with thrift and hard work. (Actual conversation at my house: Auntie Suzanne, exhorting Uncle Pookie to do something: Where's your Protestant work ethic? Uncle Pookie: I'm Catholic. And so are you.) I know Calvinism must come into and probably Puritanism, but there's also the question of why Protestants whose cry is "faith alone", would promote hard work as a sign of salvation. Also how much of this is the idea that if it's fun it can't be moral (aka general tight-assedness) or that if it's uncomfortable it must be virtuous? And why would the faith most associated with the Middle Ages not be associated with thrift--wasn't everyone thrifty by necessity, except for when building cathedrals or having the odd feast? (If you had to spend many man-hours spinning and weaving to get a small amount of cloth, imagine how careful you'd be in how you cut and sewed it and how you wore the subsequent garment. Now imagine all your goods represented a similar investment of time.) Many of the early Christians (Catholics, whether Jack Chick will admit it or not) were downright ascetic, and monastics have to work as well as pray. How do attitudes toward thrift relate to self-expression or church architecture? How does thriftiness affect the spirit? And if actual history and theology aren't enough to hang a thesis on, then there's the area of the great psychobable god of our age, self-esteem: Do any Catholics suffer low self-esteem because a great civil virtue is associated with Protestants? Probably not, since hardly anyone in our consumer-driven, materialistic culture cares about thrift, but that doesn't mean a college student couldn't BS about it for 20, 30, or a couple hundred pages.

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