Some of us Christians have set out to find fragments of the Gospel in pop culture. We seek out altars to unknown gods that we can preach alongside like Paul on Mars Hill. Sometimes, we think and act like God has to insert Himself into His creation somehow; He comes to the world to find an opportunity to slip in some clues to His existence, to find the right rocks to hide the Truth under. For example, sometimes we see a movie with an obvious Christian allegory, or hear song lyrics that sound uncannily like the Psalms, but when we research the artists responsible, we find that they don’t profess any religion or even any interest in faith. This is often confusing and frustrating to us–surely only a Christian could sound like a Christian!
But this reflects a crooked idea of the cosmos. Grace doesn’t sneak into Nature; Grace is the precondition of Nature. God was not compelled to build a world; He freely chose to sing out a universe. Sheer, gratuitous love is the endless ocean out of which reality surges, and every atom of existence is ultimately floating on the willful breath of Grace. We’re the ones who built up walls and fortresses to protect ourselves from Grace. These are all the broken institutions of our fallen world that noisily block out the symphony of God’s voice. But any crack in a dam will spurt forth water, not because the water had to find the dam, but because the dam was built to hold back the water. The water was already there; Grace is already there because it is everywhere (that is to say, everywhere is Grace). The Reformed theologians are right to refer to God’s “common grace”, for it is shared by all that is. It is as democratic as matter itself. And this means that anywhere we fail to properly insulate ourselves against God, His Grace will slip in until and unless we close off that channel, too.
A perfect example of this can be observed in the modern bar, particularly the sports bar. In many ways it is the perfect counterfeit of the church: A community of people who regularly gather to eat and drink, complete with a preacher offering a cure for your ailments from an elevated pulpit. This is the quintessential case of dam-building against salvation, a collective flooding of the God-shaped void. Pascal says that we perceive an existential emptiness in our lives and therefore fill our time with diversions to distract ourselves from our mortality and our feeling of helplessness, and the sports bar achieves this end with phenomenal effectiveness. TV screens fill the walls like stained glass windows in a cathedral, and where church windows were meant to gently guide the distracted mind back to the work of God by depicting stories from salvation history, these new windows simply blast the exploits of athletes, filling us with an artificially excited sense of camaraderie. As Leonard Ravenhill observed, entertainment is the devil’s substitute for joy. Note that entertainment is different than recreation or leisure, the latter of which you will rarely find at a modern bar, since the bar thrives off a sense a restlessness. This makes it one of the most well-fortified strongholds against Grace.
But this was not always so. As Aloysha, the young monk, reminds his skeptical father in The Brothers Karamazov, had it not been for God, not only would there have been no civilization, but no alcohol. Throughout the Middle Ages, alcohol was almost exclusively brewed at monasteries, and the Protestant Reformation was largely fueled by theological discussions that took place over beer and pretzels. This Christian heritage can still be glimpsed here and there in the iconography used by the labels of alcohol manufacturers, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the German liquor, Jägermeister. Its symbol displays a stag with a glowing cross hovering between its antlers. This striking, if enigmatic, symbol can be seen hanging on the wall of practically any modern bar, the hart looking out at the milling crowds with a silent, penetrating gaze.
The reason Jägermeister uses this image is straightforward enough. ”Jägermeister” is the German term for gamekeepers, foresters, or hunters (it literally translates as “hunt-master”), and Curt Mast, who first distilled the drink, originally developed it for the government-sanctioned hunting-parties. The stag with the cross was already the symbol of hunters in Germany, and therefore became attached to the liquor. The reason, in turn, that this picture was linked to hunters is because it comes from the story of St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters in the Catholic Church. These are clear-cut, brute historical facts.
But let’s resist the temptation to stop there, and instead interpret these facts the way we would if we found them in a novel–for this is what history properly is. Who was St. Hubert and why was this his crest? Why has God, in His Providence, allowed this symbol to pop up in the enemy’s camp?
The Church commemorates saints, not only to preserve a record of their personal holiness as an example to the faithful, but also because their lives provide both substance for and vindication of theology. Someone can argue persuasively that bumblebees, aerodynamically and physically, shouldn’t be able to fly, and the easiest way to refute this is to watch a bumblebee fly. Someone can write volumes about how humans can’t fly, either, and all it takes to refute them are the Wright brothers going ahead and flying. The saints do this with the Christian message: They prove it by living it. Let us turn then to St. Hubert.
Before his conversion, Hubert was a wealthy nobleman. All the world was laid out before him. In this way he has a unique relevance to us in the First World of the 21st century, for we live better than the kings of the ancient world. What was a privilege for individuals like Hubert are now a privilege for whole societies. Sadly, this also means we have vastly more access to diversions than anyone else in history, and this is why, despite all our conveniences, we are both the busiest and the most bored civilization in history. Hubert also experienced this, for we are told that he was addicted to hunting in his youth. As Pascal observes, hunting is often about the chase rather than the catch–it is a way of distracting ourselves. Otherwise, why would we keep hunting even after we caught the fox?
Tragedy and suffering harshly slashed into Hubert’s life when his wife died in childbirth. His comfort and complacence were suddenly shattered in the way that only death can upset our lukewarm latitudinarianism, and, like everyone else, Hubert had the option of either confronting his mortality and suffering and trying to make sense of it, or of fleeing from it into a depressed, self-imposed slumber. The wise approach is always to sit alone with the gaping hole in the problem of existence until you can make sense of it. There have always been a few courageous enough to look Death eye-to-eye, but, like most of us, Hubert was not strong enough, and instead tried to suffocate his pain by throwing himself completely into hunting, not unlike how many people throw themselves into drink to smother the pain of existence in our day. The poor are not empowered enough for hunting and have to beg in order to drink; they have no choice but to wrestle with suffering; therefore, blessed are the poor. But Hubert, like us, had alternatives.
But here is the miraculous part: Even if he wasn’t seeking God, God kept on seeking him. And this fact split the heavens open one Good Friday morning. While his friends were at church, commemorating the sacrificial death of Jesus, Hubert was stubbornly out hunting, hoping he’d find more than just an animal to bring home out there in the woods; hoping that he’d also find peace. Soon, he found a great stag, but as he drew near, suddenly he saw a transfigured crucifix hanging above the creature. A voice came down from the cross, telling him, “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.” It then instructed him to find Lambert, the bishop of Maastricht.
The beauty of this story can hardly be underestimated. That Good Friday morning, people were filling the churches to come to Calvary; but Calvary was also reaching out from the churches to find the ones who were running away from them. And I think the vision taught Hubert something. He was hurrying deeper and deeper into the woods, hoping to find escape from suffering, and there he found the crucified God, who offered the resounding answer to the problem of pain: He took pain upon Himself to conquer it. Centuries before Bonhoeffer, Hubert already learned that only a suffering God can help us, and the moment he saw that glowing cross, he had his theodicy. He could forgive God for taking his wife, because he now understood that God had forgiven him. Hubert promptly left all his wealth and status to become a priest, and faithfully served as one until the day he reposed and met his Lord again.
Many historians claim that the story of Hubert is legend because of its similarity to the story of St. Eustance, a Roman soldier who also converted when he saw a vision of the cross between a stag’s antlers. This, we are told, suggests that the stories of Eustance and Hubert are actually the same fictional story told with different variants. It takes a certain kind of modernist stupidity to make a claim like this–as we all know, stuff never happens the way any other stuff has ever happened. But, of course, this story is actually most reminiscent of the conversion of St. Paul. The obvious difference is that Paul saw Jesus while doing what he thought was God’s will; Hubert met Jesus when he was trying to avoid God’s will. And therefore I think it is appropriate that he is the first individual commemorated by the Catholic Church in November, the month of the dead, for not only was he trying to deal with his wife’s death when he met Christ, but he also represents the psychologically dead, the emotionally dead, the spiritually dead. His story forcefully reminds us that, in the midst of the very activity of trying to block out God, God is still there, waiting to burst forth in radiant glory.
With that in mind, let us always pray for those staring into the golden, placid seas of beer, gradually losing themselves into the swirling, pounding music of the sports bar. Many of these lost souls will glance at the symbol of St. Hubert; many will see the crack in their dam, and perhaps go up to it to explore, to taste the tributary trickling out of it. Until then, the glowing cross will float over thousands of lonely throngs, dutifully holding forth the promise of God’s love.