Preaching the Gospel in a Language “Understanded of the People”
by Louis R. Tarsitano
In one of the many dystopian movies of the early 1970s, the hero, in the last line of dialogue, announces a horrific discovery. “Soylent Green,” the food product of the title, “is made from people.”
A quarter century later, whether it horrifies us or not, orthodox Christians must confront a real-life fact that many of our heterodox opponents have assimilated. For the foreseeable future, the language that communicates to ordinary men and women (the language “understanded of the people” as the XXIVth Anglican Article of Religion puts it) “is made from people.”
How this culture moved from using words, facts, and arguments to employing images of people, and the emotions these images invoke as a primary means of communication is open to debate. Yet Christians must address this change in language if we are to fulfill our calling to witness to the Faith in this time and place.
From Reason to Emotion
Let us begin, then, by considering how and why the common language has changed, before we turn to examining how Christians can communicate in this new language without conforming to the culture that produced it.
Perhaps the transformation of the common language from words to “people” began when newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek were swallowed up by their celebrity news departments and began to yield to magazines like People and to the tabloids. Perhaps it began on television, when newscasters became celebrities themselves; or when anyone could become a celebrity on “Oprah” or “Donahue,” for an hour, if his life were dysfunctional enough.
Perhaps it began as long ago as “talking pictures,” when a new predigested reality took its audience beyond Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” and reversed Aristotle’s “purgation of pity and fear” by inciting emotions that seemed more real and true than those of everyday life. When these larger-than-life sounds and images were transferred to the intimacy of television, everyday life itself became smaller. Only those images of life that fit the confines of the smaller screen, confirmed by their presence there, were accepted as real.
Pictures & Programs
Although an hour of educational television delivers less information, less usefully, than fifteen minutes of disciplined reading, even educators are turning to video. But pictures always lie, as much as by what they include as by what they exclude from the frame. This falsification is the essence of special effects and movie magic: innocent enough when applied to entertainment, but wildly dangerous when used to define “reality.”
What is missed, then, is the big picture: that experimental, tentative description of a world and a life that is greater than ourselves, which results from the tedious gathering and evaluation of information from a variety of sources and witnesses. Such a pursuit is inherently humbling, since it begins with the admission that reality is greater than our capacity to comprehend or explain it.
Honest scholars may come to different conclusions about this hard-won information, and some, over time, may change their minds. Video, on the other hand, is always the same, and it breeds arrogance in those who take it seriously. Its authorities are frozen in time, and they deliver the same answers every time a video is played, revealing why it is correct to call it a “program.” Like a computer program it is designed to give unwavering results.
Some might argue that connecting a television screen to the Internet opens up the closed world of programming, but the general public demands increased computer speed and capacity, not to engage a larger flow of words and numbers, but to make their computer experience, by the addition of pictures and sounds, as much like watching television as possible. Programmers are more than willing to accommodate them, since the announced goal of the next generation of computer interfaces is to integrate cable television and the Internet on every screen.
The Failure of Rationalism
It may seem a paradox, at first, to claim that technology has played a major role in reducing the common language to something made from people. We might rather expect, as in the science fiction of H. G. Wells, that technology should be both the new common language and “The Shape of Things to Come.”
What the overly confident Wells and his contemporaries never envisioned, however, was the wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment values that they held to be the basis, not just of their own, but of all civilization. Should a new Dark Ages befall mankind through war or some other catastrophe, they believed, as strongly as St. Paul believed in the Second Coming, in the inevitability of progress and the sufficiency of human reason to restore man to greatness. They believed, against the evidence of history, nature, and divine revelation, that man can build an enduring city, and they thought that they had done so.
They forgot that cultures “wax old, as doth a garment,” and that ordinary people, let alone God, discard them when they cease to serve. Rationalism, modernism, and the Enlightenment that produced confidence that man is the measure of all things, have simply failed as explanations of life in the twentieth century.
Rationalism cannot account for the appearance of AIDS at the height of the “Sexual Revolution,” or explain why the frivolous promiscuity promised by contraception has failed to bring happiness or contentment. There is nothing in modernism to prepare us for the discovery that a previously unknown level of material prosperity has left mankind spiritually empty. Sane human beings, contemplating Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and a host of grim imitations, will not accept mankind and its works as the sole measure of reality.
The gospel, of course, does account for the sorrows of self-centered, rationalistic man, and one might imagine that the collapse of the Enlightenment would present a golden opportunity for preaching the gospel and building a culture based on it. But that would only be the case if Christian leaders were prepared to seize this opportunity, and they were not.
On the contrary, Church leaders, liberal and conservative, have done their best to preserve, not the gospel of Jesus Christ, but Well’s lost shape of things to come. Old-style liberals persist in the Enlightenment’s denial of all things supernatural, except as the symbolic hopes of an evolving human race. Conservatives, on the other hand, have circled the wagons to protect the modernist status quo, as if the 1950s were a golden age. Both “parties” in their public pronouncements never fail to describe the matters of concern to the Church in political and rationalistic terms. Thus, their leadership is irrelevant, because neither of them addresses the loss of confidence in the Enlightenment and modernism as experienced by believer and non-believer alike, in what is called “post-modernism.”
Anglo-Catholics & Charismatics as Failures
In the case of the Episcopal Church, for example, Charismatics and Anglo-Catholics, representing an earlier romantic resistance to modernism, have offered to fill this gap in leadership. They have managed to gain a few followers. But whatever their superficial differences, both have attempted to deal with modernism by wishing it out of existence, despite the material evidence of its effects and their immersion in its decline.
In their reactions, however, neither the Charismatics nor the Anglo-Catholics have escaped modernism or post-modernism for a biblical and historic form of Christianity. Neither have their self-described evangelical brethren, who cling to the modernist institution of the Episcopal Church in the hope of ruling it themselves one day.
While the Charismatics idealize the simple supernaturalism of an imaginary rural past, they have yielded themselves up, as well, to a world ruled by television and images. Their model church service is a televised gospel show with a role for every participant, whether that of a modern prophet delivering new revelations, or that of the enthralled worshipper playing the spiritual air guitar like a fan at a concert.
The Anglo-Catholics also identify themselves with an imaginary past, an idealized Middle Ages. Their supernaturalism is more complex, hierarchical, and institutionalized than that of the Charismatics, but there is a theme-park quality about their model service that speaks of nostalgia and middle-brow recreation societies, more than of a compelling Christian Faith. More critical, if not as apparent, is the peculiar tradition among Anglo-Catholics of embracing the most rationalistic forms of the higher criticism of Bible. They do so, both to demonstrate their standing as modern intellectuals, and to make the point that authority in the Church resides, not in the Scriptures, but in the hierarchy.
Moreover, these Charismatics and Anglo-Catholics (and their equivalents in other branches of the Church) are actually neo-romantic movements, learning nothing from the general rejection of the original romantic movement at the turn of the nineteenth century. History itself is so much a part of the identity of Western Culture, based on the Bible and the later Greek philosophers, that lying about history, even in a supposedly good cause, repels the romantics’ potential allies, such as traditionalists. And what the neo-romantics don’t understand any better than the liberals and conservatives, is that today’s public, mesmerized by television, is in the act of abandoning not just modernism, but the entire Western Culture, including those parts of it that they have idealized.
Is TV the Culprit?
We certainly cannot blame television for causing this abandonment of Western Culture, any more than we can credit the printing press with the Renaissance or the Reformation. But television, like the printing press in the fifteenth century, has magnified a social change that proceeds from the exhaustion of a set of cultural premises, and it has been an expression of change in itself.
The Chinese, for example, possessed the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder for centuries before they were discovered or imported by the West; and yet, little changed in Chinese society. The West, on the other hand, was ready for a change in favor of an increase in national autonomy and personal identity, and so these technologies found history-making uses in literacy, exploration, warfare, and conquest.
Whether television is an inevitable technological development or not, there is nothing inevitable about the way it has been applied by Western society. In fact, when we discuss television and its effects, we are considering American television in particular. It was in America, where personal autonomy declined from liberty to license, satiation, and enervation, that television achieved the form that is now imitated around the world with similar effects. “Bay Watch” is the new lingua franca: the most-watched television program in the world.
It is a commonplace to say that television has created a global village. What this implies, without its being understood, is that people, when they are overwhelmed by a technology that seems out of their control, retreat like medieval villagers into an artificial world of their own, as narrow and superstitious in its own way as village life in any other era. These global villagers have become more than isolated from other people by the passive experience of watching television. They have been alienated from their own historical identities as the homogenizing quality of television transforms them into the bland masses required for mass media to exist.
Post-Modernism & Rebellion
It would be comforting, then, to think of the post-modernism mentioned earlier as a rebellion against the failures of modernism. Actually it is a surrender to those failures.
If rationalism has failed, the premise of post-modernism is not a return to the balanced reason that encompasses the supernatural as well as the material, but a rejection of reason itself. If evolutionary transcendentalism has been proved a fraud, it is not the human invention of evolution that is denied, but the existence of the transcendent. If the preening masculinism of the Enlightenment has brought disaster, it is not a balanced anthropology that replaces it, but a rejection of the masculine in favor of an equally exaggerated feminism, accompanied by a perfectly predictable mythology of Nature as the cosmic womb.
Even the name “post-modernism” is a fraud, since it is not a new cultural movement, but only an effort by the modernist establishment to give its failures a name. At most the term means if man (in both senses of the word) can’t do it, it can’t be done. Post-modernism continues the Enlightenment rebellion against divine revelation and biblical religion, since only biblical Christianity is automatically excluded from its scope.
Even this exclusion of Christianity is not a rational decision or a matter of principle. Rebellion against God has been irrational since Satan declared, “Non serviam.” Post-modernism has no principles, because it lacks a mind of its own. As a petulant rejection of the Logos himself, it is not an ideology, since ideology requires logical development and exposition.
When post-modernism’s rejections and rebellions are totaled up and subtracted from reality, little remains but an animal appetite for pleasure and comfort; a dependence on emotion, rather than thought; a trust in images and pictures, rather than words; and a pantheistic spiritualism devoid of the transcendent, expressed primarily as sentimentality.
Genuine Christian Discourse
Christians communicate with one another on the basis of a biblical worldview, understanding themselves to be a communion of saints in Jesus Christ that transcends time and space, even as they live in them. They look to the Logos for their pattern, so they value human reason, if it is informed by, and submitted to, divine revelation. At the same time, they understand themselves to be fallen from an original righteousness, so that their ultimate hope resides in God and revelation, and not in what they think and feel.
There is a specialized quality about Christian discourse, since its vocabulary begins with Moses and the Pentateuch. Since the saints of earlier ages are alive in God, Christians use short-cuts in their speaking and writing, drawn from their living tradition. The Nicene Creed, for example, summarizes for them, not only the thoughts and labors of the first four General Councils in articulating the basic dogmas of the Holy Scriptures, but also the subsequent sixteen centuries of Christian agreement in those dogmas.
Christians speak to one another in the language of Apostles, Fathers, Reformers, and other great expositors of the Faith. Even during the long hegemony of the Enlightenment, this Christian language did not present a problem for Christian evangelism. When modernists offered false dogmas in opposition to Christianity, faithful Christians could engage them in debate, as St. Paul engaged the philosophers at the Areopagus. However they misused them, modernists believed that words, reason, and logic had value; and the purpose of debate was not so much to convert the dogmatic modernist, as to witness to Christ in the public square for all to hear and see.
Not Only Naked but Empty
Now, as modernism collapses into post-modernism, that public square is almost empty. Yes, politicians, scholars, and other specialists transact some business there, but the audience for their debates is elsewhere, huddled around its electronic hearths.
Fr. Neuhaus has written eloquently of “the naked public square,” left naked by the absence of Christianity and spiritual discourse, but I think that he is too optimistic. The public square is empty because, with the decline of modernism, the belief of the general public that its members are participants in what goes on there has also diminished. If “life is a lottery,” as politicians have recently maintained, then the outcomes of life are irrational, rendering debate a waste of time.
A similar evacuation of the public square occurred when the Roman Republic gave way to the Empire. Most people simply opted out of social debate since a government of Caesars, rather than of objective law, was no more rational than a Caligula or Nero, and beyond their practical control. Even the civil cult became a matter of mindless obedience, since it reflected more of the current Caesar’s moods and whims than anything of a meaningful divinity. The population’s attention moved from the public square to the circus and the games, and the people were silenced by the government’s promise of bread in their homes.
Among the factors in Christianity’s eventual conquest of the Empire were its appeal to reason, guided but not overwhelmed by revelation, and its promise of personal dignity and responsibility. By proclaiming that life under God’s providence does make sense, Christianity refilled the public square, raising up new nations and whole systems of constitutional government. Enlightened man committed slow suicide by excluding Christianity and its world of meaning from the square again, reemptying it again in the process.
In the emptiness of the public square words and oratory will not find a general audience, nor will political activities motivate the ordinary person who does not believe himself to be a part of politics. The special language of Christianity will speak less and less to those who do not already believe.
Certainly, Christians need their special language, if only to speak with one another and to keep the tradition it represents alive; and they need to address whatever remains of rational government and common life in their societies, for the sake of their conversion to Christ. Demands to the contrary, that Christians should abandon their linguistic heritage, are not pleas for better communication, but invitations to surrender to post-modernism. At the same time, the Divine Commission requires Christians to discover and to adapt to the gospel a language that is understandable to the general population.
Enter the Plausible Person
What, then, has taken the place of the rationalistic language of the Enlightenment? The answer, whether on the small screen or in its live imitation, is the plausible person.
The plausible person is not an abstract symbol, nor is he (increasingly, she) a three-dimensional person who exhibits the free will, reason, and mystery of mankind’s creation in the image and likeness of God. The plausible person is the analog of the two dimensional image on a television screen, a moving picture of a role that stirs the emotions of the viewers. He is a spectacle and an entertainment: not a communicator of ideas, but of sentiments.
The language of the plausible person is “made from people,” but not of complete persons. This distinction is important to understanding the way that this language communicates, since there is a pretense of direct, person-to-person communication without mediation, although the language of plausible persons is no less artificial than cuneiform letters pressed into a clay tablet. This pretense corresponds to all of the weaknesses and prejudices of post-modern humanity.
Thus, we encounter the success of Bill Clinton as a post-modern politician. He accomplishes little as President. His personal behavior is disconnected from his public utterances. And yet, he emotes convincingly as the “Sentimentalist in Chief,” ever ready to wink or otherwise break the tension during traditionally solemn moments, communicating the post-modern sensibility that nothing of a public nature is to be taken too seriously. He is easy to televise, since he is already acting a role, and that role garners him consistently high approval ratings, even if he receives criticism on specific issues. In the post-modern world, after all, issues do not really matter.
Clinton’s victory over Bob Dole in the last presidential election was more than a victory of the post-modern over the modern. It was a demonstration of modernism’s collapse. In words, Dole had little to offer that Clinton did not also promise. Since a sufficiency of the voters, unable to believe that either man would keep his word, had abandoned the public square, the better emoter won. More ominously for future elections, large numbers of those who have not become self-consciously post-modern listened to the speeches, believed that they were exercising old-fashioned political judgment, and voted for Clinton, the plausible person.
Princess Diana & Mother Teresa
The power of the plausible person to appeal both to the post-modern and to the incompletely so did not go unnoticed. In the English parliamentary elections, Tony Blair and the Labourites adopted the language of plausible persons. Telegenic, well dressed, and well groomed, they said and emoted the right things; and they won, easily defeating a Tory Party that relied on modernism’s facts and figures to make its case to the people.
Mr. Blair further demonstrated his supreme plausibility at the funeral of Princess Diana. In a sea of plausible persons, here was a man who could read St. Paul’s hymn to charity with style, and then downplay its potentially offensive Christian presuppositions by sentimentalizing to the pop eulogy of Elton John. He put St. Paul’s words into their proper post-modern context, where one song is as good as another, as long as it makes the audience feel something good about itself.
Diana’s funeral was the model of post-modern events, as celebrities, the ultimate in plausible persons, mourned for one of their own. Sung during the procession, the words of the ancient Burial Office were reduced to part of the show. Then, speaking the words of the post-modern Alternative Service Book, the participating clergy demonstrated their bland, vaguely spiritual ability not to give offense, or to draw unseemly attention to such questions as the possible existence of an absolute truth in Jesus Christ.
In contrast, the funeral of Mother Teresa the following week was anything but a post-modern “concert with a corpse.” A simple chorus of novice nuns served as the choir, singing with a religious seriousness missing in the technically exquisite music that framed Elton John’s performance at Diana’s “event.” The bishops and priests who conducted the service made little effort to appear plausible or to reassure the post-moderns that they were only kidding about the resurrection and the life in Christ. They delivered the same funeral that they would have given anyone else according to the Roman rite.
While the cameras followed Diana’s funeral in riveted silence, so as not to disrupt the music or speeches; during Mother Teresa’s funeral, the networks repeatedly cut away, with apologies for the “boring” canon of the Roman Mass. The speakers were often silenced, so that the commentators could raise questions about the morality of the deceased’s Christian opposition to abortion.
The same commentators also attempted to rehabilitate Mother Teresa in post-modern terms stressing her ability to work with people of other faiths, as if this proved that she did not take her Christianity or Roman Catholicism too seriously. The person they praised was not the intensely faithful woman whose body lay in the box before them, but a plausible person who thought that all religions were good and more or less equally true.
Plausibility in the Church
But while celebrity is helpful in the construction and use of plausible persons, it is not necessary, as the General Convention of the Episcopal Church proved last July in Philadelphia. Anyone, it turns out, can give a post-modern sermon, lecture, or speech. Begin with a few jokes to deprecate oneself and to demonstrate a lack of traditional or modern seriousness. Continue by sharing sentiments through anecdotes and stories, linked by periodic expressions of general good will and non-specific spirituality. Applause will follow.
The overall style of the convention was a preview of Princess Diana’s funeral, which was appropriate, since the remnants of the old Episcopal Church were being buried by a distinctly post-modern institution. The archbishop of Canterbury attended this funeral, as well, with much the same message: it is nice to be Christian, but as long as we are together that is all that really matters.
Public services of the convention exemplified the change that had occurred. The ceremonial trappings of traditional religion were all in place: the fine choirs, the brass ensembles, a sonorous organ, the clergy in colorful array. The rituals followed the forms of the Episcopalians’ transitional 1979 Prayer Book, without the ad hoc additions and subtractions now customary in general practice. The outward appearance, to anyone but a trained observer, was of the Episcopal Church of old.
But what did it mean when, at the convention hall for the service at which Archbishop Carey spoke, the bishops entered to a hymn taken from Ecclesiasticus and dedicated to Wisdom? It was a solemn moment, although no one was making the ridiculous claim that this House of Bishops either possesses or represents Wisdom. More likely was the recognition that this was not the “Wisdom” of Jesus ben Sirach, but an extension of the ambiguity enshrined in the 1979 services. That studied ambiguity permitted these traditional words to be understood in a non-traditional way, as a tribute to the Sophia of the feminists, and as praise for the women “bishops” who had abandoned their former stridency to become plausible persons. They were the message of the hymn.
Old Liberals, New Liberals
A few of the old liberals and modernists who began to dismantle the Episcopal Church’s faith and practice in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s remained visible in Philadelphia, but it was clear that they had been superseded by a newer, post-modern leadership. The reality of this change was most acute in a comparison of the retiring Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning, and his elected successor, Frank Griswold.
Browning is not a plausible person. He possesses the negative charm and outward demeanor of what he is: a liberal, modernist bureaucrat. In his farewell address, Browning indulged himself in one final “in your face” attack on those he called “biblical literalists,” blaming them for slavery, for the oppression of women and homosexuals, and for most of the evils in the world. He is thoroughly interchangeable with the old-style labor leaders and “machine politicians” who have also begun to disappear from the scene.
Griswold, on the other hand, is everything that Browning is not, at least for a post-modern audience. He is thin enough and tall enough, charming enough, and well-educated enough to make post-modern people comfortable. In his election acceptance speech, he quoted the martyred Roman Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara about the role of the episcopate. Not that he and Camara would agree about much, if anything, in terms of the Christian faith, or even about the words that he quoted, but because his doing so demonstrated that he is a properly spiritual person and no bigot. The words do not count, but the sentiment does in Griswold’s world, a world where it is highly unlikely that he or his supporters will be martyred for their faith in the post-modern.
There is an Inquisition in the Episcopal Church, but its offices are directed only against the historically orthodox. Its tools are no longer the rack or the wheel, but the “conversation” that Griswold identified as his chief theological and interpersonal method. The orthodox and the semi-orthodox (believers in some objective truths, even if they get to pick and choose among them) are invited to “sit at the table” with their post-modern overlords. If they refuse to yield to these plausible persons and their battery of touching anecdotes, they will simply be dropped from the Episcopal Church, more in sorrow than in anger, as non-persons implausibly devoid of the right sort of feelings.
The traditional means of debate or politics cannot dislodge the liberals, because a post-modern audience will perceive any attempt to do so as an appalling display of meanness and brutality, enabling another round of sentimental anecdotes about their suffering and oppression as persons of good will. They have created what amounts to a cult of passive aggression, and pressing them directly will only make them stronger in their own eyes and in the eyes of a passive, post-modern public. In this new environment, direct pressure is not a formula for ecclesiastical, evangelical, or institutional success. So what is?
Like It or Not, We Must Adapt
It may have taken much pressure to get them to do so, but the members of the royal family were on to something when they sought to increase their own plausibility by taking part in Princess Diana’s funeral. The business of a royal family is to remain in business, and to rule a post-modern populace it will be necessary for them to be perceived as plausible persons. The House of Windsor may well have been secured a place in the future by the media’s coverage of young Princes William and Harry’s sympathetic and touching behavior at their mother’s funeral.
Traditional Christians, trained to distrust personal display, may find such an observation distasteful, as might those who were educated in a culture of vigorous give and take in debate, backed up by facts and not feelings. The fate of a royal house or of the Christian commission should not rest on the ability to communicate one’s emotional plausibility to a post-modern audience. But it does.
Like it or not, traditional, biblical Christians must learn to communicate the gospel to the people they are called to serve in a language that they understand. This does not mean that scholars, evangelists, and pastors should cease to know and to use traditional Christian language among themselves. Nor does it mean that mature and serious Christians should go uninstructed in it.
Christianity is a culture in itself, a representation and embodiment of the City of God in a fallen world. Christianity continues the Incarnation, as the Body of Christ on earth seeks the submission of the world to her Head in all things, even if the final submission is an eschatological promise, rather than a goal within her own power. The Church cannot submit to the world, as the Episcopal Church has done, and remain the Church. Neither, however, may the Church refuse to prosecute the Great Commission by judging those to whom God has sent her unworthy of herself.
The Church must not confuse her human habits and comforts with the Faith once delivered to the saints. This is the intrinsic beauty of God’s revelation through Incarnation and inspiration in time and space: the Church is not what she chooses to be, based on a series of abstract theological propositions, but what God has made her through his Son, the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Fathers. When she is faced with a secular cultural change, as she is now, she is not a widow of the fallen culture, but remains the Bride of Christ. Her tradition is not a cultural straitjacket, but the very power by which she finds a better way to preach the gospel.
While the only too-human element of the Church may recoil from an unfamiliar cultural environment, her divine nature as the Body of Christ compels her to move forward, not by abandoning herself, but by becoming more herself. Her model is not the Pharisees, who withdrew from God and man to maintain their customs, but her Lord, who humbled himself to become a man among men. If the Logos himself could condescend to speak using a language understood by the people, so can the Church today.
Perhaps the key to our embracing the present challenge is to remember that the Church is, and always has been, a mission and not an establishment. The essence of our being resides today, as it always has, in these words of our resurrected Lord: “As the Father hath sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21). The humility and integrity of his sending must be our own.
However difficult it may be to admit it, we have both lost the war for control of the culture that surrounds us, and we have put our trust in a preeminence that was never real. Yes, Christianity has been more influential than it is now; and yes, the cathedrals and churches we once held as the signs of our success now mock us as they fall into inimical hands. But these trappings were seized, not because they ever belonged to us by right, but because they were Christ’s, just as even his humble clothing was stripped from him before his crucifixion.
Our resurrection is not yet, so we have been foolish to expect anything other than our crucifixion. We should embrace this fact, and not recoil from it since it brings us closer to our Lord. And yet, so far, our response to the post-modern victory has been to retreat into ourselves. Some have pretended that nothing has changed. Some have tried to build tiny new establishments of their own, as if they could turn back the clock by giving themselves enough ecclesiastical titles. Some have persisted in believing that they can politically recapture an Episcopal Church that has already forgotten them.
There is a moral, spiritual, and intellectual laziness about the response of the orthodox to the post-modern cultural victory that must not go unconfessed. An elderly nun told me forty years ago that the United States is “just another mission field.” She was right, and always will be, wherever the Church finds herself before the Last Trumpet. As missionaries, then, we have a means of addressing a post-modern world in a plausible way that communicates the gospel, if we are willing to make the sacrifices that missionaries have always had to make. That means can be found in the Creeds, where we confess our belief in “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
Oneness as a Sign
The “notes of the Church” are the language that must be incarnated by people to preach the gospel in a language “made of people” to the post-modern world. Where bodies like the Episcopal Church have succumbed to this world, the orthodox must succumb as thoroughly to another world, to the heavenly City of God, holding nothing back and without pretense. If we choose, instead, to embody some lost human world of the past, we will succeed only in making our Lord and ourselves implausible.
We must, first of all, cease to speak of unity as a means to an end or a political commodity to be achieved by coalitions, compromises, and balances of power. Oneness can only be achieved by a whole-hearted submission to one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. The character of this oneness is defined by the Scriptures, and by the faith and practice of the undivided Church.
The undivided Church was patient with those who stumbled into error, but even in the terrible days of “Athanasius contra mundum,” the faithful refused any compromise or coalition with those in error. The triumph of the truth was achieved, not by the imposition of an all-powerful central institution (still the dream of tyrants who would replace Christ as Lord), but by a communion in love with Christ, by God’s grace, on the part of the steadfast.
True oneness in Christ does not depend on human approbation or status, on respectability, or on numbers, but on the will to be one, even at the cost of denying oneself for the sake of the Body. Grounded in an unchanging faith and practice, the faithful achieve a calmness and surety that permit them to deal with all persons in charity, not because of what they are, but because of what Christ has made them in his one Body.
Holiness as a Sign
Such oneness will speak to the general public of a post-modern world, as will holiness. Holiness comes from dying to self and living in Christ. Sacrificial holiness does not leave the Christian angry or self-righteous with the ungodly, but filled with pity and mercy, as Christ was in his earthly ministry. It is worth noting that Christ reserved his own anger for official wrongdoers, such as the Pharisees, expressing a genuine tenderness towards the general population, and especially towards its outcasts.
We might be tempted to call oneness and holiness a witness to Christ; but it is really a witness by Christ, made visible by the members of his Body. If the Church lives as Christ lives, undivided and holy, the Church today is the primitive Church, with the same power and mission to reach out to a dying world.
Of course, true holiness requires a thorough knowledge (and practice) of the Church’s traditional discipline, including fasting and other acts of self-denial, but not as a “technology” of holiness. Discipline is only the Body’s memory of its own proper shape and wholeness, as it moves through time and prepares itself for the Second Coming. To be holy, the Church must require those who exercise authority to be exemplary in their holiness: not sinless, for they will still be sinful men, but humbly penitent and ready to accept the disciplinary consequences of their actions. Slowly but surely, the two most sacred places on earth, the altar and the home, must be purged of every form of adultery and uncleanness.
To be holy is to possess a clear identity in the faith, and this clarity will speak to the post-modern audience. For Anglicans, Romans, and the Eastern Orthodox, the maintenance of a holy identity is simple to describe, if hard to execute: to conform the self to the received tradition of the Church. The terms of this submission are easy to know: one need only turn to the Book of Common Prayer or the equivalent manuals of the other great catholic communions. Its difficulty flows from mankind’s fallenness, and from recent alterations to these spiritual manuals. To achieve a communicable oneness and holiness, it is essential to abandon these late modern and post-modern revisions because they deliver a message that the post-modern public has already rejected.
Communicable holiness further requires a willingness to endure “cultural martyrdom.” To be in the world but not of it, the Christian must communicate by means of his life, even as he demonstrates by his living that the life of Christ is different from the life of the post-modern world. He must stand apart, not as an alien or a judge, but as a credible person who possesses a better life that he is willing to share but not dilute with other beliefs or through conformity to the world.
A Christian must be catholic to achieve his evangelistic goals, and to avoid being swallowed up by the surrounding society. He must hold the entirety of the Faith, exuding confidence that the catholic Faith is for all people, in all places, and for all times.
Whatever restraint he must use in demonstrating his learning, such a catholic evangelist must be an educated man. He must study the Scriptures and Christian tradition endlessly; but he must also be versed in the liberal arts, as a means of understanding the cultures around him. He must learn the local language, and use his education to communicate the gospel in stories, anecdotes, and parables that are meaningful to his audience as he finds them. The catholic Christian is a countercultural person: not an enemy of the cultures around him, but one who loves them enough to convert them to Christ.
This sort of catholicity is the pattern of the successful missionary, in any age, who seeks to convert and not to colonize. An example is Loyola’s vision of a polymath missionary force, however corrupted by later and lesser leadership.
The best of the missionaries have understood that a visible obedience of lawful authority and a visible disobedience of unlawful power are part of the voice of any catholic endeavor. Just as critical is a teaching ministry, because to educate, literally “to lead out” of the post-modern world into the Christian world, is, by the grace of God, to ensure the future of the Church’s mission. The number of persons who possess the accumulated knowledge of Christ amplifies the voice that speaks through the lives of credible Christian persons to answer the post-moderns’ plausible persons.
The credibly apostolic person understands that the Church does not have missions, but is a mission: the continuation of the work of the One sent by his Father. The late modern Church has wrongly understood her mission as conversion to herself, as a center of earthly power. The missionary to the post-modern world cannot repeat this mistake. He exists to convert his neighbors to the love of God, and to encourage his neighbors to be ruled by that love.
This sort of apostolic mission has been exemplified in recent times by the work of Mother Teresa and her order, the Missionaries of Charity. We find the same Christ-like pattern among other notable missionaries and pastors. George Herbert, for example, in his Country Parson, provides a perfect example of a local pastor who understood his missionary function, and who set out to make himself, with the help of God’s grace, a credible emissary of Christ in every part of his people’s life.
In the post-modern world, any caring person, whatever his or her motivation, speaks with a powerful voice and in an understandable language. It is incumbent upon Christians, who are commanded by Christ to be islands of charity in a cruel world, to make certain that Christ’s voice is not only heard, but also drowns out all the others.
Credibility & Power
Lives that embody the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic nature of the living Body of Christ are both our salvation and the voice that God has given us to speak to the post-modern world. Dabbling in anything else, or trying to recover the late modern world that has died, will only waste time and energy in disobedience to our present calling from God, which turns out to be much the same calling that he has always given.
I began this discussion with an anecdote from the movies, and I will end with one drawn from television. There are three priests currently portrayed on my local television. One is a giggling Episcopalian who uses puppets in his sermons. Another is a Roman Catholic who wrestles endlessly with doubts about his faith. Neither is intended to represent any sort of spiritual power. The third, however, is.
He is a pagan, a Shao-lin priest who wears the scars of his initiation as a sign of his authority. His words and presence are given the serious attention that was once given to the saints. In an otherwise typical action show, it is a common plot device to demonstrate the evil of the villains by their disrespect for his priesthood.
We can dismiss this as another example of television’s fascination with new-age sentiments, or we can notice that this show, to sustain an audience, must convince its members that a Shao-lin priest in his charity and wisdom is a plausible person.
To speak to such an audience in a language that they understand, Christians must recover a visible identity as persons belonging to Christ, a truly credible Person. Only then can they surpass in credibility the plausible persons who speak for this fallen world.
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“Plausible Missionaries” first appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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