In a previous blog post, I spoke about why Breaking Bad has had such a success in our culture because it spoke to our modern tendency towards ‘success’. Being home I have become more conscious of the depth such a principle has within our culture. Sitting around the living room, hearing the TV in the background, the pursuit of success is not simply one driving theme among many but is, in fact, the driving theme of contemporary man.
It is intriguing that the word success emerges with modernity. The word itself begins to emerge – at least textually – in 1535. It is a word that, initially, results based. Whatever the outcome of an activity, good or bad, it was deemed to be “successful”. The idea, too, of the ‘succession of time’ also emerges in this period. This second part is more anecdotal in that the modern sense of time which is more mechanistic demonstrates that said mechanistic view has not always existed. The word ‘success’ slowly grew to exclude negative results so that only activity that produced positive results was considered to be ‘successful’.
This very brief etymological excursus is mentioned because words are important. The way a word is used demonstrates something about the people who are using said words, what their values are, what is important for them, etc. And the fact that the word develops with modern and post-modern culture is, to me, no accident. It is, in fact, a ‘symptom’ of that culture. The more man become self-involved, self-absorbed and more autonomous – at least in a perceived sense – the more success becomes a dominant factor. This factor that success is the dominating ethos and moral category is easy to demonstrate from everyday events.
Look, first, to reality tv shows, especially those that deal with more mundane things like food, housing, decorating. Every single production that emerges within these shows – whether it is the made over restaurant, the need to get a bigger house in order to manifest one’s own personal success, etc. – is deemed ‘successful’ because these products are a manifestation of an achieved lifestyle goal. Success is the goal of life, and it is determined by how well you manifest that success to others. The janitor is doomed to being unsuccessful in the modern world.
This really is a shift and is perhaps why the Christian message has such a difficult time gaining hold in the world. This inability of the Gospel to speak to the culture is because of the foolishness of the Cross. The cross is the real ‘anti-sign’ in the modern world because it is the sign of being unsuccessful. The Cross equates to humiliation, death. Life with the Cross is no longer acknowledged as ‘man-made’ but is a manifestation that life is gifted by God – an element that can only be seen with the lens of the Resurrection. The Cross is irrational in the modern world because ‘success’ is the new rationality.
This is why – while embracing all that is good in the world – the Church and her members, as they become more identified with the Cross, will become more of a counter-sign, a counter-rationality, a warring faction set against the world. Success and the Cross cannot meet. They are antithetical, and we can judge the modern age as the rejection of the Cross. The emerging post-modern world is the place where the Cross will have its great impact. There, in the darkness of individualized existence, the Christian and the men of his age will share in this dark existence (one need only look to the apocalyptic turn of all media as a sign of post-modern darkness). In that darkness, the Christian will shine as one who is dark with the light of hope. The world is entering into a universal Holy Saturday where the greatest hopelessness will emerge because ‘success’ will be seen to be infantile, purposeless, and pointless. People will experience in the depths of their souls a sense of the meaninglessness of things. The Christian will experience this too. Yet the distinguishing mark of the Christian will be the hope in the midst of the darkness. The Christian man will know all that is part of the existential condition of his secular brethren, but he will still have faith in the darkness because of the fact that Christ Himself descended into that darkness. They know that Christ is with them. This is the emergence of the Cross, the emergence of the true form of the Church and of Christian existence. It is in this that the Church will have her evangelical vitality. The difficulty will be for the Christian to embrace this existential darkness as the form of their existence for the sake of their brothers who live in it and know no way out.