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The following was adapted from the author’s response to a talk by David Mills entitled “Cultivating the Catholic Imagination,” given at Touchstone’s 1996 conference, “In the World: The Gospel of the Resurrection in a Culture of Death.”
An early draft of David’s talk had a lengthy section dwelling on a Raymond Carver short story titled “The Small Good Things.” In this story a couple order a birthday cake for their son, Timmy, and then the child is struck by a car. Things seem all right for a few days, but then Timmy collapses at school and is taken to the hospital. The parents naturally are so caught up in all this that they forget to pick up the cake. The baker becomes irate over this—he’s finished the cake and hasn’t been paid, feels he’s been cheated—and begins leaving angry, anonymous phone messages for the parents, including the question, “Don’t you care about Timmy?”
By now Timmy has slipped into a coma. The parents are at his bedside when he wakes up suddenly, screams, and dies in his mother’s arms. As they’re leaving the hospital, they realize that the doctor has been hinting that they will be investigated for child abuse. They come home shattered, only to find another message from the baker. At this point they figure out who the anonymous caller is and drive over, though it’s the middle of the night. The mother screams at the baker, he screams back at her, until the father breaks in to explain what has happened to them.
At this point the baker apologizes. He explains that he has lived alone for so long he doesn’t know how to act toward people anymore. He sits the couple at his kitchen table and brings out a tray of fresh rolls. He invites them to eat: “Eating is a small good thing at a time like this.”
In the previous version of David’s paper, he had brilliantly used that image of the “small good things” to represent what the Catholic imagination has to bring to our culture. He said that we are not driven by the “great big things,” the ideologies underlying that pale and bloodless (in a sense) search for the thing that will set all the world right. How bloody that bloodless search turns out to be, as millions die in the path of it. But we as sacramental people can appreciate instead the small good things.
A Small Disagreement
I brought up all of that to disagree with it. It is a not a profound disagreement, but I wanted to take those words and turn them around. For I think that one of the things that poisons our era is not the appreciation of the small good things (which are so very good), but our being narcotized, numbed by consumption of an endless series of small yummy things.
These small yummy things come toward us constantly, like the little chocolate candies coming endlessly toward Lucy on the conveyor belt, as she desperately stuffs them in her mouth. They come endlessly toward us through advertising, television, barraging us any time we walk through the store, feeding our envy of our neighbor’s possessions, and demanding we buy and consume more and more. And you get that buzz, that brief moment of flight, as for a moment you are lifted up by the joy of owning something new, consuming something new. And then it fades and you have to buy something else.
This constant, demanding stream of small yummy things saying, “Buy me, devour me, consume me, buy some more” is what keeps our secular neighbors, good people though they may be, from seeing the only truly great big thing—what Mary was willing to sit at the foot of Jesus to hear, the one thing needful: to know our God and Father, and his son Jesus Christ. The great big thing that made this world and set it spinning, that creates and sustains us all. It is the endless succession of candies, the small yummy things, that distract our neighbors from the great big thing.
So having flipped around David’s words, but still analyzing the situation just as he did, I ask: What do we do, then, to cultivate the Catholic imagination? How do we live as Christians in a world that is submerging into anti-Christianity ever more deeply every day?
There is something that came up briefly in a question from the audience, and otherwise, in the course of three presentations I haven’t heard it. It’s evangelism. We spend a lot of time talking about how we can preserve ourselves—how we can protect our families, what we can pass on to our children—but I haven’t heard a call here to go out and spread the gospel.
I am often rebuked by the memory of a conversation I had with a woman named Brenda, who is a street preacher at Times Square. She has had a little table there every day, noon to six, for 14 years. She has been kicked and beaten, been there in the rain and the snow. When I asked her why she does it, she said, “People are dying and going to hell.” She feels that she doesn’t have any choice; it’s the Great Commission, every Christian’s job. She is a saint for our time. She recognizes that people are dying and going to hell, and this is what she is called to do. For our part, what can we do?
I would start where David did and say we begin by retaking control of our minds by purifying them: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8) Turn away from the conveyor belt of candy. We need to purify our vision and forsake the enticing, confusing, mesmerizing, narcotizing succession of small, yummy things that come our way. Remove the beam in our own eyes so that we can see more clearly to help our brothers.
Some have extended this call to purification to predict a renewed rise of monasticism; I think that is entirely possible, and some will be called to that. Many of us see the first step as taking out the TV, as David has. For our family, we just took out cable; we did an intermediate thing and still get the basic four channels. But begin to condense and purify what it is you consume.
Gatekeepers or Ghetto Dwellers?
I was planning to ask how many people here saw the movie, Independence Day. If we had more time, the question I would want to raise is, what criterion did you use to determine that it was a seemly movie for you to see? Or did you even think about that? Of course, there is not much that you can know about it before you’re actually sitting in the theater. But I sat there with my children around me and watched two episodes of people throwing up, one of a man urinating, a guy in bed with his stripper girlfriend, and I thought, “This is another example of defining deviancy down.” These scenes that would have been repellent not long ago are now casual elements of family entertainment.
How do we serve as “gatekeepers” on ourselves to purify our vision, so that we’re not intoxicated or poisoned by our culture? Begin by removing that beam in your own eye.
But you can go too far in gatekeeping and find that suddenly you’re in a Christian ghetto. Let me read a paragraph from “Away With The Manger” by Chris Fabry. A secular radio announcer says, “It seems curious to me that the religious community is so angry with the culture they retreated from so many years earlier. They had constructed their own Christian ghetto inside America, with Christian bookstores, Christian radio stations, Christian workout videos, Christian recording artists, Christian comedians, Christian t-shirts, Christian antioxidants, and Christian aluminum siding complete with fish symbols.”
I assure you that if, in your pursuit of a purer vision, you cancel every subscription to every paper and magazine, turn off the TV and turn off the radio, the culture will still get through to you. You can’t escape it. We believe in free will, and as American citizens we have a certain amount of freedom, but I guarantee that you are not free not to know about Madonna. She is going to get in your head one way another. The things you need to know, and even things you’d rather not know, are going to be battering down your doors all the time. You won’t be able to avoid them.
At this point, as we find that balance between not being numbed by the small yummy things, and yet understanding our culture enough that we’re able to speak to it, we need to preach the Word. How to do this depends on what your calling is and what your gifts are. Many of us are writers, and to you I would say, don’t stay in the Christian ghetto but knock on the door of the secular world. I have found success in this much easier than I expected. We can’t complain that they’re excluding us if we’re not even trying. People are dying and going to hell, and we’ve got to find a way to get in the cultural doors.
Tough Sell or Soft Sell?
What happens when we bring the message that we have to bring? One of the things David said during our radio interview was that our fundamental message is repentance. This is a problem. This is like trying to sell flossing. This is like trying to sell root canals. This is not an attractive message. The problem with our message is that we Christians are the conscience of America, and nobody wants to listen to his conscience.
We are perceived as self-righteous. Even though we’re not saying “We’re perfect, you’re not,” any time we criticize someone else’s behavior we’re considered to be self-righteous. So this is another problem we have; we make our target audience angry because we’re thought to be the “evil Religious Right” that wants to control everybody.
So there is an inherent problem. Our message is one of repentance from sin and accepting forgiveness from God. Who’s the marketing genius who can sell this? What you can do, of course, is play up all the material about come unto me all you who want to be comforted and cuddled. We can present, as C. S. Lewis said, not a Father in heaven but a Grandfather in heaven who likes to see the young people enjoying themselves.
You can package a Christianity like that. But all you do is develop Christians who want to be entertained, who remain at root consumers. If they find that Christianity is no longer pleasing, they will throw it away and try another product. You don’t make soldiers for the faith that way, you just produce babies.
A Time of Danger, A Time of Peace
Somehow we have to find a way to present our message of repentance. If we do, we will be hated. If we are hated, how do we make converts? There is a paradox here that I have been wrestling with for years. If you tell the truth they’re going to hate you, and they won’t be willing to listen to you anymore, and you will lose the opportunity to tell anything at all.
Nevertheless, all we can do is bring this message of truth. We just have to expect that there will be a certain percentage of people who are going to hate us as a result. We should expect to be persecuted. As a friend of mine once said, if I’m a Christian and nobody hates me, I’m not doing it right. The message we have to bring is offensive—offensive to the Jews, offensive to the Greeks, offensive to the intelligentsia, offensive to the ACLU, offensive to your next-door neighbor. And it’s going to get you misunderstood and lied about and insulted, and perhaps eventually martyred.
I see the sweep of Church history being like the sweep of a hand around a clock face. Imagine that we began 2,000 years ago with the hand pointing straight down at 6:00, with the Church completely rejected and martyrdom frequent. Then we began to see, as the hand climbed, that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. The Church grows in numbers and gains in strength, and they are all praying for the conversion of the emperor, praying that the persecutions would end, that their children would not be martyred, their daughters not sent to be temple prostitutes. And suddenly, there is the conversion of Constantine. Now the Church is in favor, and the hand is climbing up past 11:00.
Believers got what they were praying for, but then in the Constantinian era, zeal begins to diminish. People become caretakers of the faith. You end up around noon where the balance begins to tip. The state, which has incorporated some, but not all, of the Church’s values, goes on its way, and the Church begins to be seen as an unnecessary appendage. As the hand declines to about 2:00, you get a time similar to the 1950s, when everyone was a Christian—a trademarked, copyrighted sort of complacent good-citizen Christian. The culture now appreciates the Church’s approval of whatever it’s already doing, but doesn’t want it to challenge anything. As the hand begins to come down, people begin to resent the Church. Who wants to get up on Sunday morning? It’s not necessary. If the Church asserts itself it meets resistance, and the hand descends further, to 4:00, 5:00, 6:00, until we meet martyrdom again.
What Time Is It?
Right now, I think, we’re stuck at about 4:00. We can still vote and own property, order carry-out pizza—we can do anything other citizens can, we’re not oppressed. There are people, I think, who are trying to push the hand back up to 2:00, imagining that we can recapture the golden age of the fifties. That’s just not going to happen.
In some ways I wish we could push it on down to 6:00, because it would be easier if we only had one decision to make. If the decision is, “Are you going to betray Jesus, or are you going to get killed?”, that’s the end of that. In a way it’s better than the constant daily stream of decisions we face, uncertain of the best path for our soul’s health. “Do I go to see Independence Day? Is it over the line or not? Should I close my eyes at certain parts? Do I take my 14-year-old son, or only my 19-year-old daughter?” Having so many decisions to make, living in the midst of a tricky, slippery culture, is harder than living with outright martyrdom. Maybe martyrdom is where we are going.
The thing about this clock that I would like you to keep in mind is where God is: God is at the center. No matter where you are on the face of that clock, in the whole sweep of history, as long as the world exists, you’re the same distance from God. He wasn’t closer to the martyrs than he was to our parents and grandparents in the fifties. He is the same distance from us as he was from them, nearer than we can imagine, as we walk through these difficult times.
Redeem the Time
What we have to bring to the world is a treasuring of the small good things. We also have to bring the great big thing, which is God himself—God himself, who was content to become a small good thing in a manger in Bethlehem. A vulnerable, tiny, and despised thing. And what happened to him? He was crucified, and that may happen to us.
And here we are 2,000 years later, with his Resurrection life still burning in our hearts. What will happen to us? As we bring his word, his word of repentance, his word of salvation, we may be martyred, we may be lionized. We don’t know what will happen. The same sun that hardens the mud melts the ice. We don’t know what this word will do in each individual heart that we confront. But we can bring that word; that is our duty in this age. We do it by purifying our own vision, by being bold to speak, by bringing a true word of repentance, not a fabricated small yummy word that won’t make true Christians. In the process perhaps our blood will be mingled together in martyrdom. I can’t think of a better way to go.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a columnist for Beliefnet.com and a contributor to the Christian Millennial History Project multi-volume series. Her books include At the Corner of East and Now (Putnam), The Illumined Heart (Paraclete Press), and The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paraclete Press). She lives in Linthicum, Maryland, with her husband Fr. Gregory, pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Church. They have three children and three grandchildren.