Towards a New Evangelism I: What’s so good about the ‘Good News’?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

“No – I don’t want to hear about Jesus!” This is the signature message of one member of the Internet mailing list alt.recovery.catholic – an international (but mostly north American) e-mail support community. Its members are mostly people whose experience of Catholicism has led them to see it as abusive or addictive.

The message succinctly sums up the problem of the ‘New Evangelism’ so persistently called for by Pope John Paul II. Just as people stopped listening to the boy who cried ‘wolf’ when none appeared, so countless millions in the west today suppose, on the basis of their own experience, that there is nothing especially good about the Christian Good News.

This is particularly true of Ireland, where people often suppose that an experience of nine or more years of Catholic education, and regular family Mass-going, have exhausted the possibilities of the Gospel they experienced there. The perceived de-sacralisation of the priesthood that has followed from a spate of scandals also takes a toll. So does Christian fundamentalism, of all varieties. When you ask perfectly sensible people today if they would like to be ‘saved’, many are liable to ask ‘you mean from the saved?’

Furthermore, the medium by which the Gospel has primarily been communicated for two millennia – the language of the bible and of theology – has less and less traction on human attention. All language has been debased by the children of Madison Avenue. Cynical political spin doctoring has had a similar effect. As the Ulsterman says, “If you believe all you hear, you’ll eat all you see!” In a welter of claims to veracity that are mostly spurious, we no longer associate word with truth. Our perceptual in-tray is labelled “Claims Mostly Unreliable” – and in it we place everything from Reader’s Digest promises of millions to papal encyclicals.

And biblical language has a special problem. ‘Sin’, ‘Salvation’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Atonement’ seem echoes of an age long dead – when every misfortune from floods to disease and earthquakes was attributed to divine anger. This problem is compounded by what might be called the Mandy Rice-Davies bind: the clergyman’s profession of faith is closely connected to his livelihood – so when he insists that God will call all to account at the end of time, people are inclined to think – and more and more likely to say – ‘but he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

A further problem relates to the ‘where’ of evangelisation. Spacial communities once centred on a single market place or village have been shattered by physical and informational communications revolutions – so people may sleep in one location, work many miles away, shop somewhere else, and socialise elsewhere again – and may do their thinking and discussing on the phone or the internet as members of an international work or hobby ‘virtual’ community.

As a possible solution to this problem of lost one-space community, the growth of broadcast media such as radio and television was initially met with as much enthusiasm by churchmen as by politicians such as Roosevelt and Goebbels – but multi-channel satellite and cable TV, as well as the VCR – have fragmented even these communities. Papal spectaculars are one answer – but quickly pall. They are too similar to mass political rallies in which charismatic personalities fly in, get waved at from a distance, and then fly out again, leaving little behind. For lay people wondering about their own lifestyle, there just isn’t any way of following an act like that. Radical change in the way we perceive and respond to life demands far more than a one-day sensation, and schools quickly found that replaying 1979 videos of Ireland’s papal visit was a sure recipe for an ‘Aw, Miss!’ response. Indeed, over-exposure on the media may well have done for the papacy what it has done for royalty – disperse the semi-magical aura with which people surround their mental image of an august person they have never seen.

We can summarise these problems as relating to the What, How, Who and Where of evangelisation. I’ll deal with just the first of these in this article. What exactly is the good news anyhow – in terms that will make sense to people today?

Readers of earlier articles in this series will know that I relate the appeal of Jesus, prior to crucifixion, to the fact that he upended the pyramid of worthiness or esteem that characterised the ancient world. The last would be first, the returned prodigal would be celebrated, the poor were blessed, the rich and powerful were not to be considered more favoured by God. Most importantly this verbal message – which astonished even the apostles – was authenticated by a table fellowship that scandalised the disciples of ritual purity by including the most reviled.

The Good News therefore was that those who had considered themselves at the tail end of the triumphal procession of the ancient world were in fact beloved of the God who was at the summit of it. He was to be glorified precisely because he acknowledged and raised up the lowly. ‘The World’ had got it wrong – and this claim was validated by the willingness of the messenger to associate with, and above all to eat with, the ritually unclean. Word and deed were not separate, but united – reinforcing the credibility of the message. As Peter’s astonishment over Jesus’s comment on the rich young man indicates, in the ancient world one’s sinfulness was a deduction from one’s exclusion, one’s social and spiritual unworthiness – so inclusion in the table of the messenger proved the latter’s integrity and one’s own salvation. The table of Jesus, like the Jordan baptism of John, was a challenge to the Temple system of ritual cleanliness and conformity with legal minutiae and expensive sacrifice – a system of salvation that favoured the relatively wealthy and educated.

A real, enduring fellowship offered to the shunned was therefore inseparable from the idea of salvation – and this association was maintained by the relative social humility of the early leaders of the church, and its rejection by the Jewish and Roman establishments in the first Christian centuries. Salvation is inseparable from a sense of ‘God with us’ – also expressed in the excitement of the Samaritan woman at the well. It was not ‘pie in the sky by and by’ that drew people to Jesus – but simply the fact of his willingness to bring personally the message ‘you are forgiven and loved’ – and to abide with those now evangelised, sharing their deprivation.

It is clear therefore that evangelisation is also non-hierarchical. Jesus’ humility collapsed the pyramid of esteem which had communicated to the rejected the fact of their rejection. As did his washing of the feet. As did the crucifixion most of all.

It follows from this that the Good News would not necessarily be good news for all – and that it was not simply a promise of life after physical death. It was an assurance of the love of God now and forever for those who had been taught by the world that they were of no account – with the sole proviso of genuine repentance. And it was therefore also a questioning of the presumption of those whose worldly success had been thought a sure sign of divine favour.

Sad to relate, this is not quite what the Church relayed to me during my orthodox Catholic education in the 1950s. Then the good news had become ‘the Church is always right’. The reason was simple enough: the Church’s own growth, and especially the Constantinian shift in the church’s social and political status in the fourth century had led to Christian adaptation to, and approval of, social hierarchy per se. Thus, although salvation could still be merited by the poor, their happiness must be deferred in this life. Theology soon explained human hierarchies – even the institution of slavery – in terms of divine preference for hierarchies in heaven also. It was at this point that the gospels became detached from the real world – and almost incapable of fundamentally changing it. Jesus belonged in a landscape of poor people raised by him onto a different plane – but it did not follow that Christian kings would share their tables with the verminous. Their superiority was required in order to maintain Christian order. And it was this Christian order that became Christendom.

A story told by Bede about St Aidan in the seventh century well illustrates this analysis. This spiritual child of Iona, in evangelising Northumbria, impressed its King, Oswald, to the extent that he gave the saint the gift of a valuable horse. When Aidan soon gave this gift to a beggar, the king was angered – to the extent that Aidan lamented his greater valuation of the horse than the beggar. Yet if Kings and beggars were equal in dignity, kingship itself conferred none, so kings inevitably won this argument in the long run. Territorial churchmen in time learned to avoid such sorrow by keeping such gifts, regretfully delegating the virtue of humility to their subordinates. Thus the church became itself a pyramid of esteem, duplicating and ratifying the secular one alongside.

This is where we all come in – close to the terminus of this sad experiment in accommodating the gospels to the injustice of the world. Once the elites originally educated by the Church lost intellectual respect for Christianity, their patronage of the Church could be easily abandoned. The trauma of secularist democratic revolution beginning in 1789 led to a renewed tactical alliance between political aristocracy and Christian hierarchy in the nineteenth century, but this too was fundamentally cynical and tenuous. Although it informed the Roman Curia’s attempted suppression of liberation theology as late as the 1980s, it did so at the cost of that body’s scant remaining moral authority. And this is precisely why the call for a new evangelisation now seems so forlorn. If the gospel doesn’t challenge the world, it must merely support it.

It must be pointed out also here that the fundamental premise of most Catholic education has by now been proved bankrupt: that the education of the sons of the wealthy would ‘Christianise’ society from the top down. Education itself is an empowerment, and when it is bestowed selectively upon those already privileged it can only reinforce their privilege. This is why our intelligentsias endlessly analyse the problems of the world and argue over their solution at the top of towers of steel and glass – without ever getting to the root of the problem: their own preference for height, for remoteness from the mean back streets below. For it is social contempt that the poor feel most keenly, not the material difference that is its sacrament. As anyone who has spent any time with the poor will know, people can be happy with very little until they are reminded by the media of the material differential that excludes them from the award-winning tables of the famous and the well-to-do.

And this is why our society is now so thoroughly secular – in spite of the fact that the elites that govern it are mostly the products of elite Catholic schools. The acceptance by the church of the principle of social hierarchy is an endorsement of the very essence of secularism – worldliness, the assumption that it is the proud, rather than the poor, who are blessed by God , and therefore worthy of their self-conscious superiority.

Yet the paradox is that it is the survival of social hierarchy and privilege that guarantees the permanent relevance of the gospels. Suffering and injustice, exclusion, low self-esteem, addiction, depression – all these are the richest soil on which the good news can take root. Many are reinforced by the media cult of celebrity in our own time – the raising to ikonic status of mere humans as flawed as the rest of us. For the essence of the Gospel is that we are all indeed already and unconditionally loved, and will never be forsaken. All that is lacking is evangelisers so convinced of this that they will not just say it, but live it. Indeed, given the bankruptcy of mere language, and the chasm between the word and the deed in the hierarchical Church, it is the doing of it that can alone now renew the Church.

Who ‘does’ Christian love best today? Obsessed with the danger of getting the theology wrong, our leaders seem to pay little attention to this question. If one truly loves, in the name of the Trinity, their presence is revealed by that love, which speaks of nothing else, so where is the possibility of error? We should be looking for, and encouraging, such people, if only to vindicate the truth we argue over.

Luckily I know some of these new evangelisers, and will write of this next month.

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