Can You Have Your Lent and Capitalism Too?

This past week, have you been indulging or denying yourself?

The warring sides of human existence—the selfishly sensual and the altruistic—are brutally depicted in the below painting by Pieter Bruegal titled, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559). At left is an inn; at right a church. The people from each side move toward one another as if to battle.

Notice in the foreground the fat man leading his “army” of sinners from the inn, riding a beer barrel as if a horse, and carrying a skewered pig’s head as if by a lance. Coming at him in the opposite direction is another man, a penitant, himself presenting to the fat man, lance-like, two thin fish, symbols of sharing. The scene is distinctly dystopian; neither side appears pleasant to be on, or in possession of truth (except perhaps the truth that life is inherently unsatisfactory and absurd).

The discomfort of a forced choice between the sides is palatable. Who, for example, would want to be in the black shrouded procession leaving the church, or carry a freakish and undisciplined beer belly like some of those do among the inn crowd?

File:Pieter Bruegel d. Ä. 066.jpg

Here’s detail from the inn side:

File:Pieter Bruegel II-Combat de Carnaval et Careme IMG 1463.JPG

And here’s detail from the church side:

What’s an American conservative to do with such a tension? He does, after all, profess to love Christianity and capitalism with equal fervor, and Christianity, if it means anything, means service while capitalism, if it means anything, means consumption (a 24/7 global carnival).

Enter Roger Kimball, a vigorous Christian capitalist—apparently not regarded by him an oxymoron—with a solution: abstention and service with a smile.

Many people, I suspect, regard the season of Lent — to the extent that they regard it at all — as a time of gloominess and privation. […] It is often thought that Lent is a time when Christians deny themselves pleasures and “give things up.” Maybe so. But often the most difficult thing to abandon is the dubious pleasure of saying no to joy.

And Kimball enlists Evelyn Waugh in his support:

Man is made for joy in the love of God, a love which he expresses in service. If he deliberately turns away from that joy, he is denying the purpose of his existence. The malice of Sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty  . . . but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair.

But wait. Waugh’s affirmation is only coherent if joyful service is “the purpose of his existence”—that is, a lifelong commitment—and not confined to Lent.

At some point, middle and upper class “Christians,” if they are to remain in the middle and upper classes, must put off being joyful abstainers and servers and join, once again, the ranks of joyful consumers and the served.

That is, they must leave off what Waugh calls the purpose of their existence; their “duty,” which is not the joy derived from the capitalist carnival, but the joy of denial and selfless service.

It does no good to say that servers and served should be equally joyful the year round, for that opens the way for a too comfortable conscience on the part of the served—the exploitation of the servers by the served. To leave off the path of denial and selfless service is to leave off the path of Christ. If you call yourself a Christian, you’re supposed to give the exploited poor your shirt; you’re not supposed to enlist the exploited poor in the mission to get you yours.

Thus Kimball’s solution to the tension between Christianity and capitalism is really no solution at all. Nice try, though.

Big Brother is watching you. At least be joyful about it, you ungrateful bastard.


Image sources: Wikipedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Can You Have Your Lent and Capitalism Too?

  1. Marlen says:

    Cool Blog, thanks for sharing

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