Tom Wolfe on the Sacred Heart

In his 1975 essay The Me Decade And The Third Great Awakening, Tom Wolfe, describing a political cartoon of Ted Kennedy wearing religious symbols, wrote...

The crucifix is the symbol of Christianity in general, but the Bleeding Heart is the symbol of some of Christianity’s most ecstatic, nonrational, holy-rolling cults

Apart from the misnaming the Sacred Heart "the Bleeding Heart", I think Wolfe was also a little confused about who exactly uses that particular icon. As far as formal religious usage goes, the Sacred Heart is used almost exclusively by Catholics, with maybe a smattering of the more Catholicky sections of Anglicanism adopting it as well. Granted, those using it might be more "ecstatic", and "nonrational" than your average Catholic, but I don't think its usage extends that widely across the rest of Christianity, as Wolfe seems to imply, and certainly not to the groups implied by the phrase "holy-rolling cults".

(And of course, a crucifix, properly defined, isn't a symbol of "Christianity in general" either. but I'll set that aside as an obvious snafu on Wolfe's part, requiring no further explication.)

I'd be curious to hear the experience of others on this matter. I know in pop-culture representations, the SHoJ is sometimes used in the way that the essay suggests, but I always assumed that was just the effect of ignorant(for lack of a better word) secularists.

[The rest of the essay is worth reading, if only for historical interest: a lot of Wolfe's observations might now seem commonplace, even cliched, but that could be because his view of the 1970s has become the conventional wisdom. He is actually the guy who coined the phrase "the Me Decade".]

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Comments

  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Oh, and if you want to see the quote in its original context, it's at the beginning of the second section of the essay, called "The Holy Roll". Not too far from the top.
  • ZappaZappa Ecclesiantics Host
    Isn't "anal sphincter" a tautology? Mind you I'm no physician.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    Stetson - an interesting post, but one of its bases is that the use by Catholics is use by a small part of the "Christian" world. My quick count is that the Catholic Church is not just the largest Christian church, but larger than all others put together.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Zappa wrote: »
    Isn't "anal sphincter" a tautology?

    Not according to the wikipedia article on "sphincter". There are apparently others, eg. an esophagal sphincter.

  • I believe there are a couple in the heart, too.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Gee D wrote: »
    Stetson - an interesting post, but one of its bases is that the use by Catholics is use by a small part of the "Christian" world. My quick count is that the Catholic Church is not just the largest Christian church, but larger than all others put together.

    Hmm. I didn't mean to suggest that Catholics were a numerically insignificant group within Christendom, just that they(along with maybe a few Catholic-adjacent groups) were the only ones using the Sacred Heart.

    Someone coming to Wolfe's essay with no prior knowledge of the SHoJ would likely assume that it's used by a wider variety of denominations than( as far as I know) it really is.
  • We had an older gentleman only extremely loosely connected to our Vietnamese Lutheran church, who was on the receiving end of a minor miracle. To show his gratitude, he went out and bought the fanciest, frilliest, most rococo-ever painting of the Sacred Heart in a pseudo-golden frame and presented it to the congregation. Bless their hearts, they didn't even blink, not even the elderly Germanic-heritage ones. They gave it a place of honor in the coffee room.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    We had an older gentleman only extremely loosely connected to our Vietnamese Lutheran church, who was on the receiving end of a minor miracle. To show his gratitude, he went out and bought the fanciest, frilliest, most rococo-ever painting of the Sacred Heart in a pseudo-golden frame and presented it to the congregation. Bless their hearts, they didn't even blink, not even the elderly Germanic-heritage ones. They gave it a place of honor in the coffee room.

    Interesting. Given my impressions of the North American Vietnamese community, would I be correct in assuming the miracle recipient was of Catholic background?
  • No, Buddhist actually. So naturally he had no idea...
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    No, Buddhist actually. So naturally he had no idea...

    Ah, I see.

    According to wikipedia, the Sacred Heart is in fact, venerated among Lutherans. Though I'm guessing that might be a regional variation(like, eg. I'm taken to understand that Danish Lutherans sometimes have crucifixes).
  • ZappaZappa Ecclesiantics Host
    No, Buddhist actually. So naturally he had no idea...

    ROFL. Of course.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Hm. I don't think I knew until now that something akin to the Sacred Heart was used in Buddhism. Thanks.
  • I don't think it is. He simply identified it as a very NICE piece of Christian tat and brought it along for us. Which was incredibly sweet, and it melted my heart to see how the congregation received it. Lovely behavior on all sides.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    They gave it a place of honor in the coffee room.
    I just have to say, I really can’t imagine much that sounds more Lutheran than a church with a “coffee room.” :lol:

  • Oh, and American Lutherans have crucifixes too--certainly in the LCMS, where we use crucifixes and straight unadorned crosses more or less at random. You get the odd person who has some doctrinal rationale, but in my experience it's more about what the people around you were using, and what you grew up with, and random bits of culture that have flowed past you from the Baptists or the RCs. So best practice for us is not to sweat it, and just go with whatever random collection of stuff you already have.
  • Nick Tamen wrote: »
    They gave it a place of honor in the coffee room.
    I just have to say, I really can’t imagine much that sounds more Lutheran than a church with a “coffee room.” :lol:

    Yeppers. The third sacrament, right?
  • HuiaHuia Shipmate
    You have lovely people in your congregation Lamb Chopped.
  • Yes, they really are.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    I don't think it is. He simply identified it as a very NICE piece of Christian tat and brought it along for us. Which was incredibly sweet, and it melted my heart to see how the congregation received it. Lovely behavior on all sides.

    Oh, okay. I misunderstood Zappa's laughter.
  • Golden KeyGolden Key Shipmate
    LC--

    Tibetan Buddhist, by any chance? Just wondering, because some of their art can be pretty intense.
  • Lamb ChoppedLamb Chopped Shipmate
    edited March 3
    No, not at all. The art was standard white Jesus of the consumptive style, probably picked up in the local Catholic supply house. And the man was a courtly old gentleman of the standard Vietnamese Buddhist background, which is to say, funerals and holidays, with a strong dose of ancestor worship mixed in. He was a lovely man, and was one of the quartet of my husband's friends who used to play tennis together.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    stetson wrote: »

    Hmm. I didn't mean to suggest that Catholics were a numerically insignificant group within Christendom, just that they(along with maybe a few Catholic-adjacent groups) were the only ones using the Sacred Heart.

    Thanks - now understood.
  • The reason it was so funny is it is exactly like what would happen if someone with no Christian background or understanding whatsoever were to feel a strong debt of gratitude to the local RC church, and after visiting a Christian bookstore, found a beautiful leather-bound copy of The Augsburg Confession to present to them--all done up in gilt and with the church name engraved on it. I expect he'd get a similar reaction.
  • Golden KeyGolden Key Shipmate
    Sounds kind of like a guy in the novel "In This House Of Brede". A Japanese Buddhist man is a patron of the Brede convent, because of the Martyrs of Japan in the 16th century.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    The reason it was so funny is it is exactly like what would happen if someone with no Christian background or understanding whatsoever were to feel a strong debt of gratitude to the local RC church, and after visiting a Christian bookstore, found a beautiful leather-bound copy of The Augsburg Confession to present to them--all done up in gilt and with the church name engraved on it. I expect he'd get a similar reaction.

    Where I come from, a lot of Catholics would need to have it explained to them what the Augsburg Confession was, and even then, probably wouldn't quite clue-in as to why it might be an oddity to display in a Catholic church.

    (And I can't be TOO snobbish about this. I recognize "Augsburg Confession" as something associated with Reformation Lutheranism, but have no idea what it says, beyond what I'd extrapolate from Luther's general theology. And I rarely, if ever, think about it unless someone else has mentioned it.)
  • stetson wrote: »

    (And I can't be TOO snobbish about this. I recognize "Augsburg Confession" as something associated with Reformation Lutheranism, but have no idea what it says, beyond what I'd extrapolate from Luther's general theology. And I rarely, if ever, think about it unless someone else has mentioned it.)

    In fairness, I suspect I'm not alone in not having much clue about the Sacred Heart beyond "one of those weird post-reformation RC-only church names".
  • Alan29Alan29 Shipmate
    Sacred Heart stuff probably appeals less to Anglo-Saxon Catholics than to other ethnic groups, though we have do a church with that dedication nearby known by locals as "sakey 'eart" (rhymes with shakey cart.)
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Golden Key wrote: »
    Sounds kind of like a guy in the novel "In This House Of Brede". A Japanese Buddhist man is a patron of the Brede convent, because of the Martyrs of Japan in the 16th century.

    But why does this Buddhist guy admire Catholic martyrs? Wikipedia says something about the persecuting government also being anti-Buddhist, so did he view the Martyrs as comrades-in-arms?

    In Korea during the colonial period, protestant churches got a bit of a PR boost as a result of opposing the Japanese and serving as centres for nationalist activity. But they were fighting against a foreign power.
  • SojournerSojourner Shipmate
    I believe there are a couple in the heart, too.

    Nope, there are valves

  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Alan29 wrote: »
    Sacred Heart stuff probably appeals less to Anglo-Saxon Catholics than to other ethnic groups, though we have do a church with that dedication nearby known by locals as "sakey 'eart" (rhymes with shakey cart.)

    Well, when you think about it, there aren't a lot of Anglo-Saxon communities in the world that have been historically Catholic, at least post-Reformation. I think even in England, RCism has been at least partly propped up by the Irish presence, even if a lot of the faithful have English surnames via intermarriage.
  • SojournerSojourner Shipmate
    The cult of the Sacred Heart has been big since 17th century France when it started with the visions of a Visitandine nun called Margaret Mary Alacoque. It was taken up with considerable enthusiasm in post-Revolution France.m, in particular by the nun Madeleine Sophie Barat who founded the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1800. I spent 5 years in a gulag run by the Society in the sixties and despite immersion therapy still don’t get it.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    Tat I love. Years ago I came across the writings of the 13th-century mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg, a beguine who became a Dominican tertiary and wrote The Flowing Light of the Divinity and had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart. Even early medieval images had that same flaming, burning heart framed with rays of light, pierced and wounded by the lance, encircled by the crown of thorns, surmounted by a cross, and of course bleeding.

    What Mechtild was writing about was embodied pain and spiritual bliss bound up together and gesturing towards a mystical union, modelled on the Crucifixion. In an ascetic body-hating age, this was a way to acknowledge the role played by the body and emotional heart in mediating the Divine presence in images that simultaneously embraced the fleshly, the erotic, the anguished sacrifice and the transformed.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    stetson wrote: »
    Golden Key wrote: »
    Sounds kind of like a guy in the novel "In This House Of Brede". A Japanese Buddhist man is a patron of the Brede convent, because of the Martyrs of Japan in the 16th century.

    But why does this Buddhist guy admire Catholic martyrs? Wikipedia says something about the persecuting government also being anti-Buddhist, so did he view the Martyrs as comrades-in-arms?
    Mr. Konishi was Christian, not Buddhist. He becomes quite indignant when one one of the nuns asks whether a monastery in Japan shouldn’t be Buddhist rather than Christian. “We, though Japanese are old, old Christians and—yes, martyrs.” It is his style and aesthetic for the monastery that will be built in Japan that is very Japanese and consistent with a Zen Buddhist aesthetic.


    As for Sacred Heart, that’s the name of the former RC cathedral here. Until a few decades ago, North Carolina had the smallest Catholic population per capita in the US, and that cathedral was the smallest in the continental US. The Catholic population in NC would mostly have been Anglo-Saxon and Irish with maybe some French thrown in.

  • Alan29Alan29 Shipmate
    stetson wrote: »
    Alan29 wrote: »
    Sacred Heart stuff probably appeals less to Anglo-Saxon Catholics than to other ethnic groups, though we have do a church with that dedication nearby known by locals as "sakey 'eart" (rhymes with shakey cart.)

    Well, when you think about it, there aren't a lot of Anglo-Saxon communities in the world that have been historically Catholic, at least post-Reformation. I think even in England, RCism has been at least partly propped up by the Irish presence, even if a lot of the faithful have English surnames via intermarriage.

    I was kind of including the Irish in my net (for which I will burn in torment.) Sakey Heart is more of a French/Latin thing, I think. We chilly northerners look askance when a chap exposes his chest.
  • ForthviewForthview Shipmate
    As MaryLouise has said Mechtild of Magdeburg was a famous proponent of devotion to the Sacred Heart centuries before the devotion was actively encouraged by the Society of Jesus and the visions of Margaret Mary Alacoque. The blood flowing from the wounds of Jesus as a centre of devotion came to be seen also in the flames of love emanating from the Heart of Jesus.
    I suppose that the Scottish Catholics who are more northern than English AngloSaxons are more of the Celtic variety. Certainly in Scotland there will be few RC churches will not have a statue or a picture of the Sacred Heart prominently displayed. It is a devotion which has lessened greatly in intensity since before the Second Vatican Council when virtually every RC parish would observe the devotion of the First Friday of the month (Communion received on nine consecutive 'first Fridays' would virtually guarantee entry to Heaven at a later date)
    Of late I have only noticed that devotion in Ireland and I suspect that any RC born after 1960 would never have heard of it.
    The devotion also places importance upon Acts of Reparation (sorrow for sin and trying to make up for this ). The basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris (and also in Brussels) is a prime example of this.
    As Lamb chopped said many people who are only vaguely familiar with Christianity will have seen pictures of the Sacred Heart as often featured in pre Vatican2 popular devotional items.

    In the last month there was a series of UK TV dealing with the Aids crisis which in the 1980s engulfed mainly the homosexual community. One of the characters in the series 'It's a sin' came from a very evangelical (black) family. Prominently displayed in the home of the parents of the young man was a picture of the Sacred Heart. Whether this would have been the case I don't know, but I don't personally associate pictures of the Sacred Heart with Evangelicals. It looks to me more that the producers wanted to indicate the intensity of religious fervour in this particular family and just stuck in some items of religious devotion.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    @Forthview

    re: "It's A Sin"

    Hollywood is notorious for placing Catholic imagery in ecclesiastical settings where it most decidedly does not belong(usually in conjunction with a fire-and-brimstone style preacher), and I don't imagine things are much better with Tinseltown's overseas counterparts.

    So my guess would be that Evangelicals DON'T venerate the Sacred Heart and, as you suggest, the writers were just looking for a quick and easy shorthand for "conservative religion".
  • stetson wrote: »
    @Forthview

    re: "It's A Sin"

    Hollywood is notorious for placing Catholic imagery in ecclesiastical settings where it most decidedly does not belong(usually in conjunction with a fire-and-brimstone style preacher), and I don't imagine things are much better with Tinseltown's overseas counterparts.

    So my guess would be that Evangelicals DON'T venerate the Sacred Heart and, as you suggest, the writers were just looking for a quick and easy shorthand for "conservative religion".

    I'm sure you're right.
    :wink:

    Our late churchwarden, more Catholic than the Catholics, was very much devoted to The Sacred Heart, but fortunately IMHO was never permitted to put up, in the church, one of those images or pictures so beloved by tat enthusiasts.

  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Sorry, but what is "tat"? The word seems vaguely familiar, but nothing relevant turns up in a google.
  • stetson wrote: »
    The reason it was so funny is it is exactly like what would happen if someone with no Christian background or understanding whatsoever were to feel a strong debt of gratitude to the local RC church, and after visiting a Christian bookstore, found a beautiful leather-bound copy of The Augsburg Confession to present to them--all done up in gilt and with the church name engraved on it. I expect he'd get a similar reaction.

    Where I come from, a lot of Catholics would need to have it explained to them what the Augsburg Confession was, and even then, probably wouldn't quite clue-in as to why it might be an oddity to display in a Catholic church.

    (And I can't be TOO snobbish about this. I recognize "Augsburg Confession" as something associated with Reformation Lutheranism, but have no idea what it says, beyond what I'd extrapolate from Luther's general theology. And I rarely, if ever, think about it unless someone else has mentioned it.)

    I tried to come up with an analogy from football--say, presenting some sort of football tat from a team madly competitive to the one you actually follow--but my ignorance on the subject did me in.
  • Sojourner wrote: »
    I believe there are a couple in the heart, too.

    Nope, there are valves

    Interesting stuff when I googled. I didn't know valves and sphincters are different. Learning something every day!
  • stetson wrote: »
    Sorry, but what is "tat"? The word seems vaguely familiar, but nothing relevant turns up in a google.

    Tat is an affectionate and mildly derogatory term for religious items of occasionally kitschy or over-the-top style, everything from vestments and candles to paintings and fridge magnets. Consider it in the same category as kit, gear, stuff, or doohickeys. If you hang around Ecclesiantics, the term comes up a lot. Using it for your own religious items basically says, "I'm not taking myself too seriously--I know there's a perspective from which this is mildly funny," while at the same time allowing you to carry on using the stuff in all seriousness at appropriate moments. So my referring to this Sacred Heart painting as "tat" was basically a way of indicating that, hey, it's wonderful Christian folk art (at this point, in this case) with a mildly amusing aspect (the apparently-gold frame which is really gilt plastic, but of the very most expensive-looking kind, with tons and tons of swirly curlicues).
  • stetson wrote: »
    Sorry, but what is "tat"? The word seems vaguely familiar, but nothing relevant turns up in a google.

    Generically, junk; old things that should be thrown away, possibly broken. In context, the gaudy end of religious (usually Catholic) paraphernalia, the sort of thing you might buy in a gift shop at Lourdes, or might adorn the high (camp) end of Anglo-Catholicism, usually in that instance with lots of lace.
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    As I’ve read through this thread, I’ve remembered a family cemetery in the North Carolina mountains, that I drive by occasionally. It’s small and sits next to a Baptist church. At the entrance to the cemetery, next to the “Name Family Cemetery” sign, is a brightly painted statute of Jesus, his arms spread and his red Sacred Heart standing out against his white robe.

    In that part of the state, I’d be amazed if the family was Catholic; it’s in an area thick with country Baptist churches and the occasional United Methodist church. My hunch is that whoever put it up thought “Jesus” and “love,” and probably had no clue about Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They just saw it and liked it.

  • Yep. I not-so-secretly sort of love this kind of thing. It makes me want to pull out my camera. People are great.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    @Lamb Chopped

    @Nick Tamen

    Thanks for the explanation of "tat".

    (And I guess I inadvertantly outted myself as a non-ecclesiantician who thought he could just waltz in and start a thread of his own without having spent more than a few minutes over about fifteen years reading the forum. Sorry. But this really seemed like the proper place for my question.)
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    Tat isn't an exclusively Catholic phenomenon. I suspect most, if not all these are Prod.

  • Well, I'm not a denizen either, and this is probably where I would have put it!
  • Nick TamenNick Tamen Shipmate
    stetson wrote: »
    @Lamb Chopped

    @Nick Tamen

    Thanks for the explanation of "tat".
    I’m guessing you meant to thank @Arethosemyfeet, not me. :wink:


    Yep. I not-so-secretly sort of love this kind of thing. It makes me want to pull out my camera. People are great.
    Me too! I’m now of the lookout for that statue whenever I’m on that road.

  • Alan29Alan29 Shipmate
    And of course by analogy there is the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Churches used to have matching pairs, mother and son displaying their giblets to each other across the church.
    Gruesome stuff.
  • stetsonstetson Shipmate
    Enoch wrote: »
    Tat isn't an exclusively Catholic phenomenon. I suspect most, if not all these are Prod.

    Thanks. I'd forgotten about those.

    In Via Dolorosa, I think the Roy Orbison-lookalike between Hitler and Vlad The Impaler is Jim Jones.
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