Thursday 8 August 2013

From MTV to Mecca

From MTV.... Mecca

From MTV to Mecca: Book review

I read this book mostly because it came up as one of those 99p one day offers on Amazon and was expecting a pretty standard story of a woman looking for a bit of structure in her life after the maelstrom of a media life and turning to Islam. That it didn’t turn out this way probably says more about my tendency to oversimplify than anything else.

Kristiane Backer was an MTV presenter who converted to Islam. So the broad outlines of a woman who turned her back on a pretty chaotic Western lifestyle in favour of a greater certainty and security are certainly there. But there was quite a lot that didn’t fit neatly into this narrative.

First, there was the fact that a key moment in her conversion was erotic: she fell in love with Imran Khan and expected to marry him. (Although they seem to have mended whatever bridges needed to be mended since then, it’s fair to say that Khan doesn’t come out of this terribly well.) Through him, she was introduced to the rich (and exotic) cultural and spiritual world of Islam the attractions of which have lasted beyond the end of the relationship with Khan.

Second, her Islam is centred on what might caricature as a liberal Sufism rather than the some of the more restrictive versions of Islam. If she rushed to escape the inchoate West, she did not end up entering a prison house version of Islam.

There’s a lot that could be said here about Western understandings of and relationships to Islam. But I want instead to concentrate on the general issue of religious quests in the modern West. Steven Sutcliffe  (for example here)  in his analyses of modern religious movements such as the New Age has made much of the idea of ‘seekers’ Sutcliffe emphasizes the idea of serial and multiple seeking –put crudely, the caricature of the hippy who flits from yoga to Islam via Wicca in the course of a life or even in the course of the normal week. Backer doesn’t fit into this idea: she seems to have moved from a very superficial Lutheranism to a very deep Islam without any detours.

But where she does fit into the idea of seeking is in the sense of movement and of exploring the unknown. Islam for her is both erotically attractive (she falls in love with both Imran Khan and, more importantly, with Islam) and capacious enough for her to feel it can be explored and travelled further into over the course of a life. Thinking about Catholicism, can we capture the seeker? There is certainly a sort of seeker that is problematic: the sort of Catholics who finds Catholicism a bit boring unless it is jazzed up with Tibetan singing bowls and Tantric sex workshops. That sort of restless bricolage is probably more a result of accidie than anything else and is difficult to incorporate into an orthodox Catholicism unless treated as a vice. On the other hand, if the serial or multiple seeker is regarded as analogous to a package tourist, Backer is rather equivalent to a traveller who has fallen in love with a particular region and has spent the rest of her life exploring it. If we’re going as Catholics to attract that sort of seeker, we need to be both exotically attractive and deep (capacious) enough to allow exploration once someone is inside.

Catholicism certainly can look strange and exotic to someone from a Protestant or secular background. Even the plainest, most modern Mass can seem profoundly odd to someone who hasn’t encountered it before (and, believe me, that was my reaction even to a very liberal, very low key Anglican Communion service when I encountered it for the first time). When we get it a Tridentine Mass, it certainly ticks the boxes for exotic. And although, in general, many parishes do look aesthetically dreadful, as a tradition taken over the centuries and over the world, Catholicism can look as beautiful and odd as you might wish. (It might be objected that being exotic isn’t desirable. I won’t pursue this here, but my answer would be that the exotic (or merely strange) can be symbolic of the transcendent: that lust for the out of the ordinary can be related to the lust of the human being for the partially glimpsed transcendent end of human beings. And certainly, the exotic nature of Catholicism points to that transcendent end rather than simply to an enjoyment of mucking around in silks.)

On depth, it’s hard to imagine anything (intellectually, aesthetically, morally) deeper and more capacious than Catholicism when it is firing on full cylinders, provided that we have not allowed ourselves to become estranged from the full inheritance of our 2000 years of existence. So, as with the exotic, the possibility is there even if the reality, in many parishes, is that depth seems to end with finger painting Bible stories.

In sum, when dealing with modern culture, Catholics should be aware of how to attract seekers through the exotic and the deep. We need to be confident that we possess those attributes, but need to be more careful about ensuring such possibilities are manifest in the local branches of the Church.

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