Q: Why call this thing “Bad Catholic”?
A: Because if you take your faith seriously, you’re bound to be dissatisfied with how well you’re living it. The kind of people who insist they’re “good Catholics” invariably use that phrase as part of a sentence like “Now, I’m a good Catholic, but…” And the “but” is always a big one:
“…but I obey my conscience, not some ‘celibate’ Eyetalians over in Rome.” “…but I own a chain of abortion clinics.” Or “…but I just can’t accept race-mixing. It’s like bestiality.”
And so on.
People who (like my authorial role model Walker Percy) admit to being bad Catholics or Christians are typically those who examine their consciences carefully, and who try to lead penitent lives. Not that they’re raving successes at penitence either, but at least they’re trying—or trying to try. That’s spiritually much more advanced than feeling pretty durn good about yourself, and expecting that God (or the Universe) will notice.
Q: How long have you been writing these books?
A: Since 2005.
Q: How long do you aim to keep writing them?
A: Until, thanks to the decay inherent in all contingent being, like most sequels they start to suck. So far, I’ve been told that each one is a teensy bit better than the one before. That keeps the pressure on.
Q: Why write about such serious—eternal life and death—subjects in such a smart-alecky way?
A: First, because that’s simply how my mind works. Writing these books feels to me like talking, and reading them is like being seated right next to John Zmirak on an airplane. Except you don’t have to climb over me to get to the restroom; in fact, you can carry me right in there with you.
Q: But what good do such books do?
A: Modern Americans don’t lose their faith from reading Voltaire, or even Christopher Hitchens. They lose it by watching a hundred skits on Youtube or SNL that render Christians ridiculous, something you’d be embarrassed to be associated with. The question of whether the Church’s claims are true rarely even comes up. Well, I turn that process on its head, and help people to laugh at the World, the Flesh, and the Devil—which helps them, once they’ve settled down, to give the Faith a fair hearing. And that’s really all it needs, since it’s true.
Q: Why should a non-Catholic read your book?
A: A hundred years ago, I might (had I existed) have said: “Opposition research.” But now all of us orthodox Christians are under the same kind of attack for the same set of reasons: We hold to an historic code of conduct that cuts across the grain of modern life. We don’t subscribe to what Dwight Longenecker called “utilitarian hedonism,” which seeks the greatest number of momentarily pleasurable experiences for the greatest number of people. That makes us all kind of dangerous to the smiley-faced despots who manage modern culture and government—whose rhetoric reminds me of “Wither” in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength: a pink cloud of kind-sounding verbiage that swathes a poisoned dagger. We’re all in the bunker together. We might as well read each other’s books.
Q: So what Protestant books are you reading?
A: I’m thinking of finally getting around to the Old Testament.
Q: So where’s this book excerpt you promised Winston?
A: Right here, from Chapter 4, The Church:
Q. The problem I have with what you’ve been explaining isn’t so much with the details. They all seem to follow, once you grant a set of very strange premises.
A: I’d say that we humans reside in some very strange premises, which we didn’t build ourselves but blundered into, like those hapless Eisenhower voters who used to visit the Addams family. By the way, I’ve always considered that a deeply Catholic show: Here’s a bunch of aristocratic, history-obsessed homeschoolers who live in a gothic house full of torture devices and actual relics, trapped in an uncomprehending Protestant suburb. Watching the reruns as a kid, I developed a real “thing” for Morticia. She ruined me for any woman whose veins don’t show through her skin.
Q: Thanks so much for sharing.
A: Here we are, shaped a lot like chimps and inclined to act like baboons, but unlike them we’re capable of building La Sagrada Familia and making films like Annie Hall—to cite just two of the high points of our species. But beyond the arts, some of us do astonishingly non-Darwinian things, like giving all our worldly goods to the poor (St. Francis of Assisi); crossing the world to care for unbelieving foreigners (St. Damien the Leper); or giving up reproduction to educate other people’s children (those thousands of sisters who used to man our Catholic schools, before they encountered Carl Rogers and absconded). We also engage in outrageously useless acts of evil, like setting up death camps (Hitler) or famines (Stalin and Mao) to attack the most productive members of our societies; or aborting our own kids by the millions, then spending billions to generate new kids in laboratories, only to leave most of them sitting in the deep-freeze like shrimp dumplings we forgot about. Any account of man’s fate that didn’t sound a little bit strange—for instance, those chipper “just-so” stories of inevitable human progress and rationality they came up with in the Enlightenment—would obviously be nonsense. Like whistling in the infinite dark. Pascal said, “Man is a reed, but a thinking reed.” More important, maybe, is the fact that he’s a self-immolating, mass-murdering, icon-painting, and warmongering reed. We need some account of that.
As that commie hack playwright Arthur Miller said, “Attention must be paid!” Or not. We could just drink another Twisted Ice Tea and settle back to watch Tosh 2.0 on Hulu till the barbarians come. Your call.
Q: You certainly like to rub the ugly truth in people’s faces.
A: I’m practicing the converse of what Christians call apologetics. That’s the art of making faith appear as reasonable as possible. What’s needed now is to show that unbelief is unreasonable. Or at least it will lead you to madness, if you think about things hard enough. Consider what I do the art of apoplectics. And it’s as serious as a heart attack.
Q: It must have really helped you with getting second dates in college.
A: Yeah, those were thin on the ground. (Real college nostalgia quote: “You’re John Zmirak? But you seemed . . . nice!”) It’s my own fault, of course: I acted prickly (that’s an adverb). The mood always broke at the moment where, apropos of nothing, a fetching young coed would volunteer that she was “pro-choice.” I’d shrug, give her a really candid look, and explain: “You know, when I say I’m ‘pro-life,’ that’s not entirely accurate. I mean, life is cheap—and they’re only babies. What I really want is to restrict women’s reproductive health care options. Fetuses are just a pretext.”
Q. How did that work for you?
A: Pretty well, actually. It filtered out the women who were into Reiki and polyamory. But that was just a side benefit. Nor was the point just to watch that oddly constipated look pass over their lovely faces. My real intent was to peel off the scab on the unexamined caricature they carried in their minds, to make them listen to their own rhetoric on someone’s else lips. They usually laughed. And that’s the point. The chipper, individualist theory most modern people have is just plain funny—at least when you try to square it with everything else they claim to think. The average person you run into at a classical music concert or organic grocery store believes at the same time:
a) That each human being is endowed with inalienable rights, which begin with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but continue through infinite, tortuous emanations to include freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom of choice, then extend to things like a living wage, health care, housing, educational opportunities, racial and gender equality, and handicap-accessible restrooms.
NOT a) That human beings are the accidental result of billions of years of random cosmic and planetary accidents, followed by millions of years of undirected genetic mutations; that our brains are organic computers whose unreliable constructs result from deterministic electronic events on the submolecular level; that our altruistic instincts are driven by DNA’s drive to replicate itself; that the most successful human being in history must have been Genghis Khan, who left behind several million direct descendants; that the biggest failure had to be Jesus Christ, who lived without sex or money and died without having children.
Try holding both these thoughts in your head at the same time and you’ll have to keep them in tightly sealed containers so they don’t spill together and annihilate themselves, like matter and antimatter in a particle accelerator. To ease the strain and give the world a little glimmer of numinous “meaning,” you’ll meditate sometimes or read mystical literature exclusively (and this is key) from religions about whose doctrines you are blissfully ignorant (hence Rumi, the Kabbalah, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead). You’ll wince when evangelicals say that Jesus got them their mobile homes, and nod benignly when Oprah says that the “universe” wanted her to write her latest Tweet. You’ll give money to Planned Parenthood and to ferret shelters. You’ll think like Darwin but emote like Rousseau. Of course, when the chips are down, the meaninglessness of life will win out in the end. When Annie Hall is over, and Mia Farrow is shouting at you, “You’re not supposed to BLEEP the kids,” you’ll shrug and say, “Why not? We’re consenting adults.”
Mr. Zmirak’s book and other books relating to the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.