Ghettos and Gerunds

Religious people are often and famously torn between the ghetto and the world.

What’s the best way to live out our faith and, more particularly, to share it with our children?

Should we shut ourselves off from the world, create our own version of it with our own institutions and cultural expressions that mirror the good stuff in the world, but with a Christian focus?

Or should we plunge into the world, seeing God in what is out there, unafraid to confront and be confronted? Some Catholics and a lot of evangelical Christians take the first approach. My three oldest children all, at one time or another in their young lives, attended an evangelical preschool or daycare, so I got a firsthand look at how it’s done.

First, you prohibit interaction with products of the secular culture. This is common in “Christian” religious schools. Students and faculty often sign pledges not to listen to secular music or see anything but PG-rated films. And of course, not to smoke, drink or dance, either.

Then, since some of that stuff is kind of fun and seems to meet a persistent human need, you make your own version of it. You market music that echoes the beat of rap, hip-hop and metal music, but with lyrics about Jesus. You teach preschoolers nursery rhymes, but with all the traditional words replaced by Jesus words – why this was necessary, I have no idea, but it was done. What was also done was singing songs like “Oh, Hosanna!” to the tune of “Oh, Susanna!”.

Oh, Hosanna! Oh don't you cry for me! I've gone around this whole wide world with a Bible on my knee!


Then, as you get more money, you can afford to do more, as countless Protestant mega-churches around the country are doing. You build your own workout facilities, bowling alleys and skateboard ramps on your own property. You invite McDonald’s and Starbucks to set up shop in your own facility.

To some, this is as close to heaven as you can get on earth, and that’s fine. Catholics who yearn for the return of Christendom and hopefully work for a return of “Catholic Culture” – whatever that means – tread a similar path, only with better music. The question of Catholic culture is a complicated one, and not my point here, although I do have one observation to offer in regard to such nostalgia: What’s the fruit of “Catholic culture?” Cathedrals, you say? Well, maybe. But how about, 800 years later, an almost totally de-Christianized Europe?

(For more reflections on this issue go here.)

Unintended consequences, certainly, but consequences nonetheless, and worth contemplating and puzzling over.

Let’s think about this in another way. It may sound good – and even perfect – to think of coming to faith and belief surrounded by no one but others who believe and think the same way.

But is it?

I don’t know about you, but for some strange reason, some of the most powerful witnesses to the truth of my faith have been those who didn’t share it.

We can start with my eighth grade English teacher. I attended a public junior high school, and my English teacher was not Catholic and our classroom textbooks were appropriately secular, but Mrs. Carter wasn’t satisfied with that. She was determined to teach us grammar by way of diagramming, and the tool she used was an old Catholic school grammar textbook. She showed it to us, explained what it was, got all the sentences we were condemned to diagram from it, and she sang its praises.

“No one,” she declared, “writes textbooks like this anymore.”

Be still, my little 13-year old Catholic-living-in-Tennessee heart. I was so proud. I learned something, too, and not just gerunds. An admired teacher’s praise for an old grammar book taught me that Catholic equals quality that lasts about things that are important. Even if it’s grammar.

Later, in college and graduate school, I had two professors, both non-Catholic, who were immersed in the Christianity of Late Antiquity and the Medieval period, which means they were immersed in Catholicism. For them, the people of these periods grappled with the essential human questions in a most engaging way. The answers with which they emerged still mattered, still worked, and since the questions haven’t changed, the answers still might apply. That perspective didn't take these professors all the way to Catholicism, and it honestly ticked off many of my liberal fellow students at Vanderbilt Divinity School, who were dismayed by Gene TeSelle's amiable, stubborn refusal to condemn Augustine as nothing but a destructive misogynist. But it was a testament to the power of the truth turning up in the most unexpected ways.

Yes, sharing faith in community is essential. But I wonder if it’s not just as essential to be exposed to the ways in which outsiders see that faith, too. Because, in this world at least, and in my lifetime, I don't see every person in the world coming to a consensus on belief. Like the poor, various beliefs will always be with us. These encounters can help us clarify our own thoughts, and their appreciation builds our hope that God is, indeed at work in all things, and we don't have to be afraid of looking for Him there - in all things, not just our things.

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