The 1977 Billy Joel song Only the Good Die Young was controversial for its time because many perceived it as anti-Catholic. Joel himself is quoted as saying that he didn’t so much intend to write a song that was anti-Catholic as he intended to write a song about being “pro-lust”…
Compared to the sexually graphic lyrics in most of the mainstream songs these days, this song from the 70s is hardly even on the register for being inappropriate. The reason I choose to talk about this song rather than, say, any rap song from the past 3 years, is because I think that Only the Good Die Young hits right on the head the appeal of what all of the other songs are getting at when it says:
“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. …The sinners are much more fun.”
It’s an appeal to pleasure, to simple fun…and it’s a pretty typical way of looking at things. We have in our minds these images of the saints as being dreary old people frozen in icons with their hands perpetually folded in prayer. In contrast to that, we see the fast-paced lifestyles of our favorite characters in TV shows portrayed as fun and fulfilling. What are we supposed to think of this? We naturally deduce that either fun is “evil”, or the moral authority is lying to us, and things like lust aren’t really that bad for us. I mean, if it makes you feel happy, it can’t be a bad thing, right?
If you think about that question for more than 3 seconds, you should be able to conclude that it’s a bad way to approach making decisions. The alcoholic finds that getting drunk makes him feel happy, and then he ends up destroying his life for the sake of his “happiness”. The drug addict, the cheater and the liar all can justify their behavior by the simple fact that their choices make them “happy” because they feel good in the short-term. We have no ground to stand on for disagreeing with their actions if we’re using the same logic to justify our own behavior when we give into base inclinations like lust.
So why do we have these inclinations at all if they are “bad”? Why can’t we just give into every desire we have? If you read my post from last Thursday, then you remember that I said that simply by virtue of the fact that we are human, we are called to be great. Greatness is not easy. It requires discipline and hard work. Like an athlete training for a tournament, we must all train and work hard to be the great men and women we are created to be.
Yes, we do have natural inclinations for things like food, sex, and sleep; and so do animals. The difference is that animals are subject to these inclinations. Their life is lived merely in service of them. The life of a pig is to eat, sleep, and reproduce. But we are meant for more. We are meant for greatness, which means being in control of our inclinations, not merely slaves to them.
So to Joel’s “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints”, I quote the 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, and say:
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”
And PS – if you read the lives of the saints of the Catholic Church, you will meet some of the most fulfilled and authentically happy people in the history of the world. Freedom from slavery to our base passions means freedom for living the lives we were meant to live.
- Are Christians against fun? (johnmeunier.wordpress.com)
Article first published as I’d Rather Laugh With the Sinners… on Technorati.