Subverting Success

Believing That Success Is All That Matters Is Not of the Gospel

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Living in the United States I’m often wearied by the constant competitiveness of our culture. We seem to swallow without thinking the culture of success at all costs. I call this the Alpha American Achievement culture. Our cheerful cheerleaders chant,  “Go, go go! Win, win win! Be Beautiful! Be Successful! Be Great! Be Powerful! Positive Thinking! Beat the other guy! You can do it!”

Am I the only one to find it exhausting? Am I the only one who is critical of this relentless worldliness? Am I the only one who resents the fact that it is being exported along with other fizzy and sweetly seductive exports like Coca Cola and McDonalds?

It is not only that this mentality is exhausting, but that, from a Catholic point of view it doesn’t really fit with gospel values. 

It’s true that St Paul uses athletic imagery and talks about “running the race, finishing the course and winning the prize.” He also uses military metaphors calling us to fight the good fight, but running like a kind of subversive thread there is also the theme of taking up our cross and discovering paradoxical truth that God’s glory is revealed not in strength, but in weakness. 

St Paul says the race is run and the battle fought not through strength but weakness. So he writes to the  Corinthians:

What do you have that was not given to you? And if it was given, how can you boast as though it were not? Is it that you have everything you want – that you are rich already, in possession of your kingdom, with us left outside? Indeed I wish you were really kings, and we could be kings with you! But instead, it seems to me, God has put us apostles at the end of his parade, with the men sentenced to death; it is true – we have been put on show in front of the whole universe, angels as well as men. Here we are, fools for the sake of Christ, while you are the learned men in Christ; we have no power, but you are influential; you are celebrities, we are nobodies. To this day, we go without food and drink and clothes; we are beaten and have no homes; we work for our living with our own hands. When we are cursed, we answer with a blessing; when we are hounded, we put up with it; we are insulted and we answer politely. We are treated as the offal of the world, still to this day, the scum of the earth.

I think St Paul is being sarcastic here. He’s making fun of the Corinthians, who clearly, were all wrapped up in power plays and the way of the world. “Ooooh” he says, “You guys are so smart, but me, I’m just a holy fool, a clown for God. You are celebrities. I’m a nobody.” You can just hear him writing to modern Americans, “Wow! You guys have really done it! I mean, talk about superpower of superpowers! You’re rich, you’re beautiful, you’re smart. Geesh! Good going! And me, I’m just a blue collar guy, a tent maker, mostly out of work and homeless, but I’m chugging along. Trying to do my best you know?”

St Paul stands the whole thing on its head. What worries me about so much of American Catholicism is that we have uncritically accepted the Alpha American Achievement culture. We go for show. We dress for success. We strive to be on top and be the winners (which usually means beating the other guy). 

There’s nothing wrong with this per se, it’s when we believe that this outward, trophy-winning, success oriented, appearance-focused mentality is reality, and when we live life as if this is all that matters. This is non-Gospel. It’s exactly the opposite of the beatitudes. It’s the opposite of the apostolic life. 

We well to do, educated Americans have it all: health, wealth, power and prestige, and we top this wonderful sundae with a neat and sweet little cherry on top: religion.

The Catholic faith should not condone the American Alpha Achievement culture, but criticize it. Someone has said the gospel is only good news when it is subversive. Instead, what we’ve done is drafted Christianity into the whole thing as if to give God’s blessing to these worldly values.

The gospel must subvert and undermine the way of the world in whatever culture it finds itself. In America it is the prophetic part of the gospel to challenge the accepted success culture, to find the marginalized, the downtrodden and those who are not so outwardly wonderful. 

They’re God’s little people, and like all the saints, it is our task to identify with them and somehow stand things on their head and put down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble and meek.


Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion–Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at Blog: Standing on My Head 

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Dwight Longenecker

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