In past generations religion guided faith, shaped culture, and influenced art and entertainment. Now culture tends to guide faith and influence religion in notable ways. For example, the popular television series, The Chosen, is educating Christians and others about the Gospel stories in ways that churches cannot—or at least do not. The producers bring biblical scenes to life with backstories that make the characters more real, more endearing, and more relatable. Many Catholics flock to their churches not to attend liturgies but to discuss the latest episodes. Though the screen presentation uses imagination and freedom of prayerful thought as a guide more than literal dialogue and limited actions from the pages of scripture, it seems to impact people’s faith and relationship with God more powerfully than Sunday worship. Perhaps it is akin to Ignatian spirituality, introduced in the sixteenth century, which encourages people of prayer to imagine themselves in Gospel stories to better understand how they relate and respond in Christ’s presence.
Another way in which culture guides religion is the F-3 programs in which young to middle-aged men find bonding and spiritual development through fitness, fellowship, and faith. Hundreds of thousands of guys want to be good husbands, fathers, friends, businessmen, etc., and they use this concept as a base to do so. The article, “A Short Story of Men” by David French, goes into detail if you want to read more, but essentially, the men commit to rigorous daily physical exercise; they hold each other accountable to remain faithful to it and their Christian vocation; they converse with their fraternity about these matters (conversation that goes beyond weather, sports, and joking around); and they understand that this commitment is at the core of their faith. Like traditional religious thought, they believe that their body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that we should care for it. Like Ignatian spiritualists, they believe that spiritual exercise (i.e., understanding our purpose as husband, father, friend, Christian…) is more important than physical exercise. Through the 3 F’s, they strive to become better people.
There are other F-words that can also direct our mission on earth. At many, if not most, funerals at which I preside, people will describe the greatest aspects of their deceased Loved One in these or similar terms: “Family was always number one in her life!” “His faith was the most important thing to him!” “She never met a stranger—friendship is what defined her!” These 3-Fs, family, friends, and faith, seem to be what is most important to humanity when all is said and done. They are the legacy that we value above others. At weddings, it is similar: the three Fs are foundation (parents who shaped the couple and others who offer inspiring examples of marriage for them); feast (the celebration of this most significant decision in their life); and future (as they step together into an unknown forever).
In America, perhaps as important as honoring people at the time of their passing or celebrating marital unions is our annual Thanksgiving gathering. Each November, three other F-words surface: freedom, forebears, and food (as well as football). Though a secular holiday, it is rooted in a faith that recalls the blessings of our nation. Not just freedom from foreign rule but freedom from religious dictation is fundamental to citizens of the United States. Like with other secular holidays here (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Mother’s Day…), we express gratitude for our forebears, their sacrifices and foresight, their determination and trust in God’s guidance. From the work of our hands, labors of living, and nourishment gained from the land, we accept that God blessed this soil and those privileged to walk on it in a unique way that challenges us to shine brightly around the globe and care for others on earth.
The Catholic Church and others are vessels that lead people to God. But sometimes churches should get out of the way to allow other leadership because the Holy Spirit might navigate better through them during certain times. Now might be one of those times when churches support cultural initiatives that help people anchor themselves in faith, even if it is not centered in religion. Faith as it touches family, friends, feasts, fitness, food, fellowship, fatherhood, fraternity, forebears, freedom, the very foundation of our existence, and a hope-filled future that we seek, is at the heart of the matter.