MARCH 28, 2022
Evangelizing the Post-Christian Culture
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” said the preacher in the mossy graveyard next to a rather mossy and moldy church. A few people were standing round, putting on their solemn best. “We commit our sister to the grave,” he said, “in the sure and certain hope,” and here he paused for the slightest anticipation of the climax, “that we will keep her always in our memories. Amen.”
“Amen,” said the bystanders.
Hope? That’s not hope. That isn’t even optimism. It’s just the way human beings are. Then the people who knew you die in turn, and nobody remembers you, even if your name is still known and people still say things about you. Nobody remembers Shakespeare. Nobody remembers Michelangelo.
That scene was from one of the Star Trek shows, about forty years old by now. I can’t tell whether the writers wanted to insult Christianity and the intelligence of Christians. Maybe it was a case of bad writing and bonehead thinking. There was and is a lot of that going around. But it puts me in mind of another scene that I myself witnessed in front of the state capitol a few months ago.
A chapter of the Knights of Columbus had put up a beautiful Christmas creche on grounds that are open to all and some, for such displays. That irritated the people at the local Freedom from Religion Foundation. So, they put up a competing creche, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin standing beside a manger with no child in it, but rather a copy of the Constitution.
That was meant to be offensive, but surely the joke was on the Freedom from Religion Foundation because they showed, unwittingly, how parasitical they and other post-Christian secularists are. Just as the writers of the lame and dopey scene from the television show could not imagine a truly religious burial without raiding the faith they had rejected or hoped to leave in ruins, so the celebrators of a set of national by-laws could not sit quietly by and let the Christians celebrate in public, nor could they come up with their own solemnity, or gin up their own joy.
George Orwell and Aldous Huxley saw the phenomenon and satirized it; Orwell, grimly and mercilessly, Huxley, happily and mercilessly. It was the Two Minutes Hate instead of the Angelus. It was Orgy-Porgy with soma-spiked ice cream instead of the Eucharist. In neither dystopian world do we get any great art, or even any genuine folk culture. And, if we dispense with the dramatic exaggerations, that is where we in the western world are right now.
I bring these matters up because of the strategy the Church has taken, all my life long, toward evangelizing the current world. “Strategy” is, in this regard, an ugly term. But if you must be a calculating politician, you should at least be able to calculate. If you are going to reduce evangelism to an advertising campaign, you should at least know how to grab people’s attention. We have been like tacticians who have never heard of a flank attack; who play tic-tac-toe, and not very well, while the enemy is playing like Mikhail Tal.
Our strategy has been to accommodate ourselves to the culture, reversing the words of St. Paul; we grow old and stale, conforming to the world. Let me shout this from the housetops. There is a universe of difference between a real pagan culture waiting for reformation, rejuvenation, and baptism, and a formerly Christian culture, or rather a formerly Christian thing that was formerly a culture.
The pagan culture is alive—often wickedly alive. The formerly Christian thing is in its death rattle. The pagan culture’s very virtues are bloody, but they are virtues. The formerly Christian thing has mostly given up on virtue. The pagan culture breathes fire. The formerly Christian thing breathes disease and decay.
If only for the strategy of it, if only out of a desire to build and not tear down, to be remembered by men and not forgotten, our Church leaders should do all they can to make the practice of the faith be different from everything else people will commonly see and hear and do.
Of course, our desire should be to spread the Good News. The world has only bad news; it is the great and inescapable mis-angel, the preacher, at its worst, of hedonism that brings no pleasure, study that brings no wisdom, labor that brings no profit to the family, politics without polity, equity without equity, and a gray cloud of global amalgamation, sometimes called—for the devils do not lose all their sense of humor—“diversity.”
So we bring the Good News. We bring it, and we confirm ourselves in it, by doing things the world does not do. These are easy to enumerate. The world never kneels. We do kneel—and the more we kneel, the better.
I have said this many times before. If a bishop says, “We should all stand during Communion to show our solidarity with one another,” his motive is good, though it is not the best; we have something more important to show than that, something called adoration, or humility, or gratitude; and something more important to do, something called prayer. But let us accept his motive. He is still wrong in his strategy because he is wrong about the facts.
The action, standing in line to receive Communion, and continuing to stand afterward, does not in fact convey what he wishes it to convey. The world stands in line. It stands in line, irritated, bored, at the bus terminal. It stands in line to buy mass-produced doughnuts. It stands in line and wishes the line were shorter. It counts the people ahead and checks its watch and is happy to see a couple of them get impatient and leave.
The world does not kneel. Then kneel.
The world does not sing. What is there to sing? One of the most striking things about the world’s mass-produced music is that it cannot be sung. Folk melodies are meant to be sung. They are easy to remember, and they convey something of the character of the people from which they come.
I am, ethnically, Italian, but I am very fond of Celtic folk songs, especially the Welsh. But the last Welsh men’s choir I saw, singing along with the great operatic baritone Bryn Terfel, was almost all gray—fifty men past the age of fifty. Wales will conform herself to the world, and then there will be no more Wales.
There is no longer any real tradition of American folk music. What we English-speaking Catholics sing at Mass is not “folk,” but awkward and incoherent melodies that can hardly be remembered, that characterize off-Broadway musicals, with texts that bear no relation to real poetry, whether learned or folk.
So we should sing, which means that we should learn how to sing. And we should sing real hymns, with their authentic texts. It is not my fault that only a few real hymns have been written in the last sixty years, as it is not my fault that almost nobody can write even workmanlike poetry in meter and rhyme anymore.
And then we have chant. One of the virtues of chant, right now, is that it is utterly unlike anything that most people will ever hear. Make laminated cards for the people in the pews, with six or seven chant settings for each of the great prayers at Mass.
That’s for starters. The post-Christian world is a post-human world. Its disease is terminal. That is not so for the individual persons in that world. But they cannot be healed by more of the disease. Let us be reformed in the renewing of our minds.
Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).