Evangelizing the Secular Culture Through the New Media
Introduction: Two Self-Inflicted Wounds
Even the most cursory glance at the statistics reveals that the church in the United States is in a parlous condition. A 2008 Pew Forum study revealed that the fastest-growing religious group in America is the “nones,” that is to say, those who have no official religious affiliation. Currently, one in six Americans are not affiliated with any religious organization. And 25% of cradle Catholics have left their childhood faith. In fact, many studies have confirmed that the second largest “religious” denomination in America is ex-Catholics. A Pew statistic that I found particularly telling is that 27% of Americans do not expect to have a religious funeral—a state of affairs unimaginable fifty years ago. More to it, numbers in regard to attendance at Mass are not encouraging: somewhere between 20 and 30% of Catholics attend the liturgy on a regular basis. And if one were to remove immigrants from that count—Filipinos, Vietnamese, and especially Hispanics—the numbers would be at European levels.
Further, numerous studies have indicated that there is very little discernible difference in general behavior and attitude between Christians and secularists. Christians don’t display a distinctive profile over and against the general culture; instead they demonstrate the same allegiance to money, sex, and personal fulfillment as anyone else. And their views on central moral issues, from war and peace to birth control and abortion more or less track with the general population. Now there are multiple causes for this decline, and in the context of this brief paper I could never begin to explore them with even relative adequacy. But I should like to draw attention to two causes that I believe are especially important. Both are self-inflicted wounds from which the whole body of Christ continues to suffer.
The first is the clergy sex-abuse scandal. Through the wicked acts of a small percentage of priests and a small percentage of bishops who refused to deal with the problem, the church has been massively wounded, and this wound is still open, still festering and infecting the rest of the body of Christ. Our attempts to preach, teach, and evangelize—both within the church and without—are hugely compromised by this terrible fact. Though necessary and welcome institutional reforms have been made, the wound has not healed, not by a long shot. Fairly or not, official representatives of the church are seen by many as corrupt, dissembling, clueless, and indifferent. If Aristotle is right in saying that the “ethos” of the speaker is the most important element in the act of persuasion, we shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t find us persuasive.
The second self-inflicted wound has affected, above all, the mind of the church. Vatican II was, of course, informed by a formidable theological intelligence and its purpose, ultimately, was missionary. It wanted to present the age-old faith to the modern world in a compelling way. But, as innumerable commentators have pointed out, the reception of Vatican II was, to say the least, problematic. In the United States at any rate, the missionary impulse to transform the culture devolved into a program of cultural accommodation. As a famous slogan of the time had it, “the world sets the agenda for the church.” The concern of those who formed my generation (I went to first grade in 1965) was to make Catholicism appealing to the culture, and they therefore softened the edges of the faith, producing what I’ve termed a “beige Catholicism.” There was an uncertain, hand-wringing quality to the Catholicism of my youth, because our intellectual leaders had lost confidence in the great Catholic story and tried, over and again, to translate it into terms acceptable to modernity. And this usually meant a translation into moral and psychological categories. The end result was that our preaching and teaching seemed, more often than not, a faint echo of what the culture was already saying.
Relatedly, apologetics got a very bad name during this period. Defending or explaining the faith to a presumably hostile or skeptical audience was seen as retrograde, defensive, pre-conciliar. We looked, at every turn, for points of contact with other religions and with the secular culture. This was, of course, the Schleiermacher program of giving speeches to our cultured despisers, but as Karl Barth warned Christians long ago, this strategy rarely lures the despisers. Certainly in the west, the culture has not come running into the arms of the church. Instead—and this was to a degree a post September 11th phenomenon—elements of the high culture turned on us with a good deal of hostility, and when it did so, we were largely defenseless, having abandoned our own intellectual and apologetic tradition. We had become largely inept at telling our distinctive story and so the world found it exceptionally easy either to co-opt our story or simply to dismiss it out of hand. In very recent years, we have witnessed the rise of a particularly aggressive “new” atheism, whose mark is deep hostility toward religion (especially Christianity) which it perceives as irrational and therefore as violent. But we are often toothless in the face of this attack—as becomes clear in the number of representatives of Christianity who are often easily outmaneuvered by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and company.
For the past 15 years, I’ve been engaged in the work of evangelizing the culture. I’ve written ten books of theology and spirituality; I’ve taught courses in philosophy and systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary, one the largest seminaries in the United States; I’ve broadcast and podcasted over five hundred sermons; I’ve lectured business and civic leaders; and I’ve published dozens of articles in learned and popular journals. But I believe that the most effective work I’ve done in this arena is through the Internet. My ministry, Word on Fire, maintains an interactive website on which my writings and sermons are featured and on which are posted over 170 videos that I’ve done for YouTube, the most popular website in the world. These are commentaries on books, movies, music, popular culture, high culture, and current events. When Word on Fire launched these videos three years ago, we did so in the attitude explorers and experimenters. We really had no idea whether they would attract any attention at all in the virtual Areopagus which is YouTube. To our delight and surprise, they garnered an audience rather quickly and, as of today, over 1.4 million people have downloaded them. When this outreach commenced, I had no idea that viewers could comment on the videos. I quickly discovered that they could. To date, over 40,000 comments have been posted, and I must confess that the vast majority of them are negative—which is not surprising, given the fact that the YouTube audience is largely unchurched and secularized. However, since I can respond to these postings, I have an opportunity I would have in no other way, namely, to engage people who would never dream of coming to any of the institutions of the Catholic Church. Though some of my interlocutors are simply thoughtless or obscene, many of them are sincere seekers who, perhaps to their great surprise, find themselves in dialogue with a priest in regard to some of the deepest questions.
These lively exchanges on the YouTube forums have enabled me to discern, clearly enough, some of the basic patterns of resistance to the faith, some of the typical blocks to the acceptance of the Christian story. Though I cannot claim that my findings here rise to the level of sociological science, I believe that they are fairly good indicators of what the skeptical, secularized world—especially that part of it under the age of forty—is thinking. I have identified the four patterns of resistance—the four “heresies” if you will—as deep confusion about the meaning of the word “God,” deep confusion about the correct manner of interpreting the Bible, deep confusion about the relationship between religion and science, and finally, deep confusion about the rapport between religion and violence.
The Meaning of the Word “God”
In his Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton recalled the first time he read Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and encountered a philosophically sophisticated understanding of God as ipsum esse (the sheer act of being itself). He was flabbergasted because he had assumed that God was, in his words, “a noisy mythological being.” Again and again, in my dialogues on YouTube, I encounter the characterization of God as “a sky fairy,” an “invisible friend,” or my favorite, “the flying spaghetti monster.” This last one comes from the militant atheist Richard Dawkins who insinuates that there is as much evidence for God as for this fantastic imaginary creature. Almost no one with whom I dialogue considers the possibility that God is not one being among many, not the “biggest thing around,” not something that can be categorized or defined in relation to other things. Throughout his career, Thomas Aquinas insisted that God is best described, not as ens summum (highest being) but rather as ipsum esse (the subsistent act of to be itself). As such, God is not a thing or existent among many. In fact, Aquinas specifies, God cannot be placed in any genus, even the genus of being. This distinction—upon which so much of Christian theology hinges—is lost on almost everyone with whom I speak on YouTube. One of the best indicators of this confusion is the repeated demand for “evidence” of God’s existence, by which my interlocutors typically mean some kind of scientifically verifiable trace of this elusive and most likely mythological being. My attempts to tell them that the Creator of the entire universe cannot be, by definition, an object within the universe, are met, usually, with complete incomprehension.
I am convinced that apologists for the faith must revive some of the classical arguments for God’s existence, not simply to hold off the atheist counter-claim but also to demonstrate precisely what thoughtful Christians mean when they speak of God. When I was coming of age theologically, very little mind was paid to these proofs, for they were seen as unbiblical and philosophically unpersuasive, but both of those charges are, I believe, unjustified. Rightly formulated, they open the mind of any objective inquirer to the Creator God to whom the Bible consistently bears witness. I have found that the argument from contingency is effective, especially the version of it that F.C. Copleston used in his famous radio debate with Bertrand Russell. It runs roughly as follows. We humans are contingent beings in the measure that we had parents, that we eat and drink, and that we breathe. But those elements upon which we depend for our existence—parents, food and drink, oxygen—are themselves conditioned, caused, contingent. We cannot go on endlessly appealing to similarly conditioned things, and therefore we must come, inevitably, to some reality which exists, not dependently, but unconditionally, through the power of its own essence. This demonstration has the great virtue of being a pithy and clear proof of precisely the God who is ipsum esse and therefore the ground and creator of all finite being. Some of my interlocutors, influenced by the popular pantheism so rampant today, concede that there might be a non-contingent ground of contingency, but they identify it simply with matter or energy. Here the Big Bang theory is quite helpful, since it indicates how time and matter themselves are radically contingent and hence in need of further causal explanation.
The second “heresy” has to do with reading of the Bible. To state it bluntly, most of my conversation partners on YouTube think that Catholics approach the Bible the way Muslims approach the Koran, namely as a text that was directly dictated by God; and they therefore conclude that the Scriptures should be interpreted in a straightforward, univocal manner. I have discovered, in a word, that biblical literalism is by no means restricted to the fundamentalist camp. The comedian Bill Maher’s film “Religulous” (my commentary on which has received 150,000 visits and over 7000 comments) is especially instructive in this regard. Maher spends much of the movie interrogating pretty simple people concerning the Genesis account of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the whale, wondering how anyone in the 21st century could possibly believe such nonsense.
One of the most basic clarifications I make is that the Bible is not so much a book as a library, which is to say, a collection of texts from a variety of literary genres. The opening chapters of Genesis are religious saga; the Song of Songs is a love poem; first and second Samuel are theologically informed history; Paul to the Romans is a letter; Daniel is an apocalypse, etc. But most of my critics want to approach each of these texts with the same set of interpretive lenses, namely that which is appropriate to the reading of newspapers or strictly historical texts. A good deal of the problem flows from the faulty understanding of God I outlined above. If God is construed as one being among many, then his causal efficacy competes with ours. In regard to Scripture, this means that the Bible is his book, not ours. But the Catholic sense, of course, is that the Bible is, as Vatican II puts it, “the word of God in the words of men.” Given God’s unique metaphysical make-up, it is altogether possible to speak of a divine authorship that does not compete with or preclude real human authorship. But to admit human authorship means to admit cultural conditioning, historical context, the particularity of literary genre, authorial intention, etc. In a word, it is to admit the need for interpretation.
A difficulty I face again and again is that apparently an entire generation has been raised with very little feel for literature or poetry, for the manner in which literary texts mean. There is a marked tendency among my interlocutors to see truth as identical to fact or journalistic reportage. When I observe that certain Biblical texts are metaphorical, poetic, or symbolic in nature, I am invariably accused of “cherry-picking,” conveniently isolating those parts of the Bible that tell what “really happened” from those that don’t. I counter that non-literal texts such as Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Eliot’s The Wasteland, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Melville’s Moby Dick are bearers of profound truth indeed, though they convey their truth in a distinctively non-scientific or non-historical way. Perhaps this resistance to more sophisticated readings of the Bible shouldn’t surprise us, given the dominance of fundamentalism in the American media. Those who have seized and used the mass media most effectively have been evangelical Protestants, and thus their version of Christianity and biblical interpretation is the best known. I have found that the Catholic approach to the Scriptures, which involves deep attention to genre and a keen interest in symbolic, spiritual and allegorical styles of reading, is largely unknown.
A third heresy I consistently encounter is scientism, by which I mean the reduction of knowledge to the scientific way of knowing. The roots of this problem go back to the dawn of the modern period, to the work of Descartes and Bacon. Those two massively influential figures urged European academics to turn their intellectual energy from theology and abstract metaphysics to the mastery of nature, which is to say, to engineering, medicine, and practical science. And these have certainly been the most followed marching orders in intellectual history. The sciences—and their attendant technologies—have been so massively successful that people have come, understandably enough, to see the scientific way of knowing as the only valid epistemological path.
Time and again, my conversation partners on YouTube urge me to admit that the only valid form of truth is that which comes as a result of the scientific method: observing the world, gathering evidence, marshalling arguments, performing experiments, etc. I customarily respond that the scientific method is effective indeed when investigating empirical phenomena but that it is useless when it comes to questions of a more philosophical nature such as the determination of the morally right and wrong, the assessment of something’s aesthetic value, or the settling of the question why there is something rather than nothing. More to it, I argue that to hold consistently to scientism involves one in an operational contradiction, for the claim that all knowledge is reducible to scientific knowledge is not itself a claim that can be justified scientifically! But this appeal to metaphysics and philosophy strikes most of my conversation partners as obscure at best, obfuscating at worst. A large part of the problem here is that we have lost, in the wider culture, the appreciation of philosophy as a mediating discipline between religion and science. We hold science to be rational; and thus we say that religion, which is clearly not science, must be irrational. A very good example of this problem is the recent statement of the physicist Stephen Hawking, perhaps the best-known scientist in the world, concerning the origins of the universe. Presumably, on Hawking’s reading, the universe can burp itself out of nothing, without any need for a Creator. The problem, of course, is that there is deep ambiguity and equivocation in regard to the word “nothing” as Hawking employs it. By it, he seems to mean a “fluctuating quantum vacuum” which has energy and even spatial extension. To refer to this rather substantial state of affairs as “nothing” is confounding indeed to the philosopher who uses “nothing” to designate absolute non-being.
Almost all of my interlocutors believe the 19th century myth that the sciences emerged out of a terrible struggle against religion. The Galileo case, persistently reiterated, is the paradigm for understanding the rapport between religion and science. I remind them, with equal insistence, that the Galileo affair is one paragraph in one chapter of a much longer book. There was in fact, I argue, a deep congruence between religion and science in the minds of most of the great founders of the physical sciences, from Pascal and Descartes to Newton and Tycho Brache. More to it, the instigator of modern genetics was a friar, and the formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins was a priest. Though well known to Catholic intellectuals, these facts, I find, are surprising revelations to most of my audience. I make the case continually, furthermore, that the sciences emerged where and when they did, precisely due to certain very definite theological assumptions, corollaries of the doctrine of creation, namely that the universe is not divine and that it is marked, in every detail, by intelligibility. If the universe were considered divine or sacred, one would never be inclined to experiment upon it or subject it to invasive rational analysis. The doctrine of creation from nothing involves just this implication that the world is radically other than God. Further, unless the universe was understood as fundamentally intelligible, no scientist could get his work underway. The biologist, the chemist, the physicist, the psychologist, and the ophthalmologist must take for granted, on the basis of a mystical assumption, that the aspect of the world that they go out to meet is endowed with intelligible structure. But once again, it is the doctrine of creation—the teaching that all things are made through the divine Word—which undergirds this confident assumption. I appeal again and again to the inescapably theological foundations of the sciences in order to counter-balance the disproportionate weight given by almost all of my conversation partners to the Galileo paradigm.
Religion and Violence
A fourth heresy has to do with religion and violence, and it is probably the most powerful and deep-seated that I confront. The events of September 11, 2001 stirred up the old Enlightenment-era argument that religion is invariably violent, precisely because it is irrational. It seems that since religious people cannot offer reasonable arguments for their positions, they finally have recourse only to force when they seek to propagate their faith or when they confront religious views alien to their own. I have found that the enemies of the faith are only too well acquainted with the examples of violence and misbehavior in the history of the church: the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, the persecution of Jews, and to bring things up to date, the abuse of children by Catholic clergy. Innumerable critics ask me how I could in good faith even represent an institution that is responsible for so much mayhem. Here I am compelled to make a distinction between the divine and human dimensions of the church, between the mystical body of Christ and the deeply flawed human beings who belong to that body. In its sacraments (especially the Eucharist), its liturgy, its apostolic governance, its Scripture, its essential teachings, and in the lives of its saints, the Church is the font of living water, the spotless bride of Christ. But this holiness does not preclude the possibility of church people, even of the highest rank, doing stupid, violent, and immoral things. I am also not hesitant in reminding my secularist critics that the worst violence in human history—that perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot in the last century—was the fruit, not of religion, but of fiercely secularist and anti-religious ideologies.
The second major area of concern under this rubric is the Bible itself, more precisely those passages that seem to indicate that God commands acts of terrible violence. Once again, my critics are only too prepared to cite chapter and verse. They draw attention especially to the book of Joshua, which features a blitzkrieging invasion of the Promised Land and, it seems, a divinely-sanctioned ethnic cleansing of the native peoples conquered by Israel. And they bring to light those passages in the Samuel cycle which involve, it appears, a divine command to place on enemy peoples “the ban,” which is to say the slaughter of every man, woman, child, and animal. Indeed, my critics are quick to remind me that King Saul falls out of favor with the prophet Samuel and with God precisely because he (Saul) failed to carry out the divine edict to put the ban on the Amalekites. Not to put too fine a point on it, they wonder how I could worship or recommend to others such a wicked God.
The great tradition provides a number of interpretive helps in this regard, and we should explore them with some care. A first observation is that, for Christians, the entire Bible must be read from the standpoint of Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead. A passage from the book of Revelation is particularly illuminating here. John the visionary is within the heavenly temple and he spies a scroll sealed with seven seals and representing the whole of scripture or even the whole of history. He weeps because no one comes forward to unseal the text. Finally, the announcement is made that the Lion of Judah, who has triumphed, can perform the task. Then John sees, not a lion or a Davidic warrior, but rather “a Lamb that seemed to have been slain.” The point is clear: the non-violent and forgiving Christ, slain on the cross and risen from the dead, is the hermeneutical key to the entire Bible and to the whole of the human story. When Christians survey the Bible, therefore, they do so through the interpretive lens of Jesus the Lamb. Thus whatever reading of the Scripture runs counter to that fundamental Logos ought to be regarded as an illegitimate interpretation. The God disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth simply cannot be coherently understood as a blood-thirsty advocate of blitzkrieg, arbitrary killing, and genocide.
How then ought we to approach the difficult texts that I cited above? We might, first, appreciate them as theological/poetic expressions of the power and authority of God. A warlike ancient people would rather naturally lean toward a metaphor of military conquest in order to express the irresistibility of God’s power. And they would see the absolute nature of the victory as evocative of the absolute quality of the divine force. One might say, therefore, that these texts are a poetic version of the creedal declaration: we believe in one God, the father almighty. Secondly, since the Bible is “the word of God in the words of men,” we might be sensitive to the progressive nature of biblical revelation, a theme suggested by Irenaeus in the second century. God is slowly, gradually educating the human race in his ways, and this means that he adapts himself to varying and evolving human modes of understanding. We cannot, therefore, simply isolate one passage, one moment in the Bible and say, tout court, this is the final revelation of God.
A third perspective—and to my mind the most important—is that the violent passages of the Bible ought to be read as spiritual metaphors, tropes for the terrible struggle between the ways of God and the ways of sin. Origen long ago commented that, in many of the biblical stories, the Israelites should be appreciated as evocative of all that is congruent with the will of God and that the enemies of Israel—Amalekites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans—symbolize all that stands athwart the divine purposes. A strong indication within the Bible itself that Origen is on to something is the conclusion of the great story, in the book of Exodus, of the Israelites’ battle against the Amalekites: “The Lord will war against Amalek through the centuries” (Ex. 17:16). On the assumption that the tale from Exodus is simply a straightforward historical account of Israel’s struggle against a petty ancient middle eastern tribe, that claim makes little sense. And with this more metaphorical reading in mind, we can make much better sense of Saul’s fall from grace. By refusing to put the ban on Amalek, Saul was playing games with evil, indeed using evil for his own purposes. Consider the manner in which we typically deal in half-measures with evil, toying with it, using it in fact to our advantage, when we should simply be eliminating it. I’m quite sure that a man’s AA sponsor would be less than satisfied upon hearing that his charge was taking only one drink a week and that a wife would be anything but delighted to hear that her husband was faithful to her 90% of the time. Certain forms of evil are so repugnant to human flourishing that they simply have to be eliminated. The ban must be placed on them. Saul spared the Amalekite king Agag, but the prophet Samuel, as the Bible not so delicately puts it, “hacked Agag to pieces” (Ex. 15:33). Read in a purely literalistic way, this passage is brutal indeed; but read metaphorically and spiritually, its depths open up: sometimes hacking evil to pieces is the only proper measure.
By way of conclusion, I should like to return to an image which I invoked at the outset, namely, the Areopogus, the great Athenian public law court into which St. Paul intrepidly ventured. The Areopagus was a place where all of the rival philosophical and religious ideas of the period were advertised and publicly debated. Paul’s announcement of the one true God who made the heavens and the earth and who had been definitively revealed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead met mostly with derision. And yet a few commented: “we should like to hear you on this some other time” (Acts 17:32). I take great comfort in this passage, for, as I mentioned, I think of the Internet as a sort of virtual Areopagus, a “space” in which a practically infinite variety of philosophies, religions, points of view, and personal prejudices are on display. Like Paul, I have endeavored to enter that space with the message of Jesus, and also like Paul, I’ve been met with, for the most part, opposition and derision. However, there are those few—and I hear from them every day—who do indeed listen. And some of them even come to the fullness of faith, just as those few who had patience with Paul in Athens became the seeds of European Christianity.
It would be unwise in the extreme for the church to absent itself from the virtual Areopagus for fear of rejection or contradiction. We should enter it with the courage, intelligence, and sheer panache of St. Paul.