Growing up in the 1970s, I spent a good deal of time in front of the TV after school, watching reruns of older shows, pretending to do homework during commercial breaks and promising my mother (who was usually distracted preparing supper) that I would go read a book as soon as “this show” was over. More often than not, “this show” was “The Beverly Hillbillies,” one of the most successful shows of the 1960s.
For those not blessed enough to have squandered their youth watching syndicated television, the long-running comedy (1962-1971) was built around the experiences of the Clampetts, a family of, well, hillbillies who moved to Beverly Hills after striking oil on their backwoods property down South. Over the life of the series, they encountered almost every social group of the period: greedy bankers, spaced-out hippies, bodybuilders, movie stars, highbrow classical musicians and professional wrestlers, just to name a few. Much of the humor turned around the cultural conflict that resulted, with Jed Clampett and his clan rarely understanding, but nevertheless warmly welcoming them all in turn to share the friendship and values of their family.
Recently I was reflecting on the pastoral style of Pope Francis, and his willingness to speak to any and every one, anywhere and anytime, about the Gospel. His warm and open personality entices even the most hardened personalities to listen. Even when they do not accept his message, they almost always speak well of him and think slightly less harshly of the Church he leads. Suddenly I realized that — almost certainly unbeknownst to our Argentine Holy Father — he is calling the Church, both as a whole and as individual members, to be a Beverly Hillbillies Church. Before you quit reading, let me explain what I think this means.
Every Catholic is just a turn of the dial or click of the mouse away from a culture that, in its rejection of the Gospel and hostility to the Church, would have been immediately recognizable to the first Christians. There is a natural impulse to turn away from the world and retreat into our Catholic caves to ride out the storm. As a father of five, I fully understand this instinct and the legitimate fears which give rise to it. I have more than once dreamed of fleeing to the woods and taking up residence in the abandoned Clampett homestead.
However, retreat is not an adequate Christian response. Jesus prayed for us to the Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one” (Jn 17:15). The most powerful witness to the Gospel is a life that is fully formed according to the Gospel. And a life fully formed by the Gospel (with the exception of those very few called to the cloister or hermitage) is necessarily a public life. When confronted by a culture opposed to the Gospel, we are not called to head for the back hills, but for Beverly Hills.
But when going there, we must hold on to those Christian virtues and values which bind us to Christ. As St. Peter commands us in Scripture, “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that if they speak of you as evildoers, they may observe your good works and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pt 2:12).
We should always remember that our task is not to say what we don’t do as Christians, but actually to do what the Gospel demands. If actions speak louder than words, we should be shouting out the Good News to everyone we meet. The best argument for the Gospel is a life lived in accord with it. As Jed Clampett says, "Once you've tasted turkey, you ain't likely to settle for tripe."
Finally, we are called as Christians not just to live out the demands of the Gospel in the world, but to do so with joy. Recently, Pope Francis reminded us that “long faces cannot proclaim Jesus.” Unlike so many Christians, the Clampetts neither fell prey to the lures of the world (well… Jethro was in constant danger) nor became embittered by them. Rather, they retained both their Christian principles and their good humor, sharing both with whoever would listen whenever the occasion arose. A television series about bitter, angry country bumpkins raging against the world would not have lasted a month, let alone a decade.
While I doubt that Pope Francis has ever heard of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” I suspect that he would recognize in it the same personality that drove him asArchbishop of Buenos Aires to visit the slums, wearing holes in his well-worn shoes, not to preach to large crowds or pose for photos while giving alms, but simply to share the sufferings of the poor and show his love for them. As Jed Clampett wisely said, “The greatest joy in all of livin’ is the joy that comes from freely givin’.” Pope Francis would surely agree.
Dr. Lance Richey is dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.