On Refusing to “Dumb it Down”

In a post on his ever-interesting blog, Jason Goroncy cites a minister and professor of homiletics named Richard Lischer, whom I’d never heard of before but who seems very interesting to me. Lischer is talking about the difficulties he faced as a professionally trained theologian and scholar crafting sermons for a rural congregation that didn’t enjoy half the education he did:

Before I could talk about Jesus, I apparently found it necessary to give my farmers a crash course in the angst-ridden plight of modern man. With the help of clichés from Joyce, Heidegger, Camus, and even Walker Percy, I first converted them to existential ennui so that later in the sermon I could rescue them with carefully crafted assurances of “meaning” in a meaningless world. Along the way I defiantly refuted Marx’s view of religion as an opiate that permits us to escape the hard realities of existence. It didn’t concern me that the problem of meaninglessness had not occurred to my audience or that Marx’s critique of religion rarely came up for discussion at the post office.

It’s not that I minimize the importance of the major themes of modernity. No doubt my parishioners would have understood themselves better had they opened their eyes to the intellectual context of their lives. But they did not and could not. The giants of modern thought – Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre – and the movements they unleashed, would never touch New Cana. My parishioners lived in a prison whose view was limited to the natural world and the most obvious technologies of the twentieth century. Aside from formulaic complaints about Communists, perverts, and radicals, they did not engage the modern world.

But then I did not bother to engage their world either. It did not occur to me that I needed a new education. I treated the rural life as an eccentric experience in ministry. I was a spectator once again, as I had been in college, watching a slide show of interesting scenes and odd characters. And since I was the viewer and they were the viewees, I was in control. When I preached, I always stood above my parishioners and looked down upon them.

Consequently, my sermons carried too many prerequisites to be effective. About 90 percent of my listeners had not graduated from high school; the majority of that group had not attended high school. There was no one with a four-year college degree in the church with the exception of a regular visitor named Darryl Sheets, our Lone Intellectual, who was principal of the high school in nearby Cherry Grove. Darryl regularly cornered me in long and fruitless conversations on the possible meanings of the Hebrew word for “young woman” in Isaiah 9:14 and how they all pointed to “Virgin.” But the truth is, Darryl and his wife Marvel didn’t drive all the way to Cana because of my expertise in Hebrew or the intellectual content of my sermons. Darryl was a tongue-speaking, fire-anointed charismatic who for some reason suspected that I might be one, too. It didn’t take him long to figure out he was wrong, and then we saw quite a bit less of Darryl and Marvel.

My audience paid a heavy price for the gospel. The farmers had to swallow my sixties-style cocktail of existentialism and psychology before I served them anything remotely recognizable. I implicitly required them to view their world and its problems through my eyes. All I asked of them was that they pretend to be me.

The only person who appreciated my sermons was my wife, who, like me, lived from books. Tracy was completing her course work for a Ph.D. in English and, therefore, considered poetry and literary allusions to be the most natural of all forms of communication. What’s a sermon without, “Perhaps Milton said it best when he wrote …” But among the rest of the congregation my preaching produced a standoff of sensibilities: If the idea for a sermon did not come from a book, I was not interested in pursuing it. If it did not emerge from life, my parishioners were not interested in hearing about it. In a few short months we had achieved homiletical gridlock.

I’ll admit this passage strikes a chord with me — not because I picture myself, specifically, as a preacher or priest squandering his idealistic vision of theology on plebeian masses who don’t share or might not even understand it, but because the tension Lischer talks about is one I’ve experienced for just about my entire life, on a profound level. I’ve always lived in a sort of fear (albeit a subterranean and not a socially incapacitating one) that if I were suddenly to follow an inner urge to quote Milton in the midst of even a profound or interesting conversation, it would be grossly inappropriate and irredeemably awkward. I think on the “favorites” spewed forth on my facebook profile — Tarkovsky, Mann, Arvo Part — and wonder how articulations of the human spirit which seem to me to be so true and so beautiful, so profound and so necessary, can look and sound so unbearably pretentious to others.

Aside from whatever nagging doubts I face (about whether humans are the spiritual beings I ceaselessly proclaim them to be) and the startling moments of transcendence when I encounter someone else who also hears that “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all” — doubts and moments of transcendence which in their melodramatic way interact with each other and make life at times unbearable and so frequently exhilarating — I’ve been thinking about this problem every Wednesday afternoon, as I prepare my lesson plans for that evening’s high school catechetical class.

To be precise, I interact with the parish’s youth three times over the course of the week. On Wednesday evenings I teach RCIA classes (the Church’s “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults,” or curriculum for the preparation for the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation). While my colleagues on the Faith Formation team teach one section of English-speaking adults and one section of Spanish-speaking adults, I teach ninth through twelfth grade, all together and in English. Each two-hour class comprises four lessons (though due to time constraints, I usually have to sacrifice one of the four): a reading and discussion of the week’s Gospel passage; an explanation of one part of the Mass; an explanation of some point of Christian doctrine; and a little time spent going over the hows and whys of prayer. Later that week, on Sunday mornings, I give them a Catholic perspective on various social justice issues, a class which is much less formally structured than Wednesday evening RCIA; and after the eleven o’clock Sunday Mass, those who wish can gather for youth group with the other middle-school and high-school students not formally enrolled in Sunday School. At Youth Group, we may have social activities; do service work; discuss life or social issues; or, every fourth week, talk about vocations — talks which may serve to plant the seeds of a call to the religious life or which, just as often, may have to do with what constitutes a healthy romantic relationship. It’s two and a half steps shy of sex ed, and it’s always delicate and dicey business. Incidentally, my team members refer to our youth group — behind the students’ backs, of course — as the “Our Lady of Guadalupe Dating Service” (100% success guaranteed!). Regardless of what activity we’re in the midst of, my colleagues are always drifting around the room reminding the young and perpetually interlocked paramours to “leave room for the Holy Spirit” (an expression I tend to shy away from, substituting a “you’ve got to be kidding me” glare or an instructive hand gesture). Moses must have had an easier time parting the sea of reeds.

In my first month at Guadalupe Church, my work with the youth was my greatest challenge. Getting them to talk to me, or to listen to me, was really hard, and I tried to imagine in my head what the trajectory of the year would have to look like for this implausible adventure to meet with any success: the white kid wearing specs and patterned sweaters, in order to insinuate himself into life in the ‘hood, learns to put his cultural pretensions aside, begins to appreciate hip hop, and in the last act of the cinema verité street opera, makes the winning shot at an inner-city basketball tournament to the raucous cheers of his young students-turned-life-teachers. It’s unsurprising that this has not, in fact, been the trajectory thus far, but it is remarkable how quickly things changed and this ministry — which once had me returning home discouraged and humiliated by my inability to make connections — became my favorite part of the job. “The trick with youth is just to listen to them,” my friend Gregory suggested early on in the year, and he was absolutely right, although even this suggests that the youth warmed up to me because I am a phenomenal listener. In fact, the youth warmed up to me because they’re generous. Insofar as I’ve seen, they warm up to just about everyone — from the other volunteer youth ministers to the recently ordained priests we invite to give guest lectures on vocations days, hiding their awkwardness behind pressed white collars.

I’m proud of the youth, and my respect for their character as well as for their intelligence is what gives me reason to distance myself from Lischer’s certainly insightful reflections, above. I have sat in on a few of the other catechists’ teaching sessions, and have never overcome my gut sense that their simplification of Church teaching, for the sake of the poor and unschooled, is just a little condescending. This is lucky for me, since I don’t know how I personally could manage purging my presentation of the Catholic Catechism of all that is substantial. I must confess that when I listen to some of the boring platitudes I hear other teachers reducing Catholicism to, I am left bewildered: while my intuition, regardless of audience, is simply to talk about what is most interesting to me (even if most challenging) about any particular subject, theirs often seems to be to talk about what is simplest (even if most boring — and insubstantial).

Perhaps a few examples of my audacity will suffice. “Prayer is talking to God,” runs the commonplace insight — which I certainly mentioned, if not a few times, in my introductory session on prayer, but I certainly did not continue to hammer that single simple point, more and more slowly so as to make sure they’d gotten it, into the ground. Instead, I unabashedly proposed to my students that, in the words of Karl Barth (and I mentioned him by name — not so that they remember it, but, well, because it’s his name), “to clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” I’m not sure any of the students has ever, or would ever, know how to use the words “clasp,” “uprising,” or “disorder” in a sentence, together or alone, but I could tell by the conversation that unfurled that they understood exactly what I meant. Or again: when they asked me out of the blue this week what the Church teaches about witches, I hesitated neither to trace their image of a green-skinned, bulbous-nosed witch to Christians’ medieval caricature of grieving Jewish widows (a discussion which, in my mind, necessitated touching on both the Host desecration accusations of the Middle Ages and the Second Vatican Council’s document Nostra Aetate)  nor to reference Benedict’s condemnation of neo-paganism in his most recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate. (I did, however, leave out the Latin from both of these digressions.)

Some of my stunts have been downright fun, such as orchestrating the entire class in a faux drama of salvation to enact Von Balthasar’s theatrical analogy for the Trinity. But perhaps my most daring trick was, on the day we discussed abortion, to show them a seven-minute short called “Life,” by the Armenian documentary filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian. The film lingers on shots of the faces of women while they are delivering children, as strains of the Hostia from Verdi’s Requiem play repetitively in the background. I was nervous: for five or six minutes there is no plot, no dialogue, no characters — just a texture of sounds and images. And indeed, the students did seem to lose a little interest around minute four-and-a-half. They never talked, though, and no paper airplanes — just quizzical gazes towards the screen with periodic verifications of the clock. Finally, when at second 5:03 the image changes and the meaning of the entire film becomes clear, everyone in the room gasped and awwed — deeply, appreciatively. They get it, I thought exultantly to myself. And I really think they did.

My approach, then, is to present the Church (and by extension the whole universe of human thought and culture) to them in all her fabulous, frustrating difficulty, her rich and extraordinary history, her heights and depths and breadth of insight — her saints, her theological gestures, her liturgical strokes of genius, and above and underlying all, her greatest gift to us, namely the sense that all of the trials and tribulations of life, and the joys and desires of our hearts, might seem different to us if we believe in the Resurrection as a livable reality. My secret goal is to challenge them to think about all things more critically, and also more philosophically. It’s an incredibly personal approach, but I think they like it. They ask fascinating questions, they impress me by how well they remember things I assume they’ll never remember, they pay pretty close attention (pretty close) when I go off on some random train of thought, and their rates of attendance are getting higher and more consistent as the year goes on. On more than one occasion a few of them have asked to stay late after the two hours were through so that they could ask more questions. This moves me. At the same time, I am under no illusion that I am addressing a group of college students majoring in religion. Recently I asked my students to name the seven Sacraments, and when they got to marriage, I pressed, “Yes, marriage, good; and can anyone tell me the other name we call it by, in the Church?” Someone guessed “wedding,” no one guessed “matrimony” — and just as I was about to give them the answer, one of my students raised his hand and ventured, in complete and total seriousness, “Virginity?”

So I will have to have a class about that one at some point. In the meantime, moments like my seven-minute experiment with Peleshian’s Life and their eagerness to engage in dialogue with me, with the Church, and with each other suggest to me that the truth does exist for everyone and that it exerts an appeal over everyone, or at the very least, that the thirst for the truth (and its concomitant openness to beauty) exists everywhere, in the most unpredictable hearts, and not always necessarily in a mean, modernized, or abridged version. Everyone is a mystic. The youth have taught me to trust truth and beauty and their ability to speak (as much as I sometimes want to over-interpret them) for themselves.

Perhaps my approach is unnecessary. Just because my eccentric technique is possible doesn’t mean it isn’t superfluous. But I persist in it — perhaps because of all that I like in Lischer’s philosophy, the line which grates like fingers down a chalkboard is the one in which he states that his congregation, invited to “open their eyes” to currents of modern thought, “did not and could not.” Could not? This bothers me — it doesn’t offend me, but it bothers me as all shrewdly observed and formulated expressions of doubt in anything will bother me. I won’t call Lischer’s judgment cruel because it’s not without some truth; the basis of my very first argument, above, was my having met so many people of whom I’d be tempted to say precisely the same thing. I do wonder whether the adults in our parish, life having made them tougher and hardened their hearts into whatever mold they will by now have assumed, would be so curious, so patient with a lecture-prone academic curiosity such as myself…or whether the adolescents in Lischer’s pastoral audience were very different from the existentially unengaged adult majority that constituted it. As abstruse as some of my subjects are when I teach the youth their catechism, I don’t speak in an academic language, but rather strike a light and even goofy tone which may only be possible with young people.

A story comes to mind. Just today, my housemate Molly and I went in to Mass, and I saw one of my students waving at me out of the corner of my eye. We sat down in the pew beside her and I introduced her and Molly to each other.

“He’s my teacher,” explained my student, Megan, pointing to me…whereupon Molly asked, “Really? Is he a good teacher?” (Oh God, Molly, don’t ask that, don’t ask that!) To my eternal relief, Megan answered, “Yes,” nodded reassuringly, and then added, “He’s funny.”

Anyway, it put a smile on my face.

One thought on “On Refusing to “Dumb it Down”

  1. That is truly wonderful :-). I’d like a teacher like you!

    I think that’s the real difference between what you’re experiencing and experimenting with and what Lischer is describing: “Feel” vs. “Think”. One of my big frustrations with academia (and I think a frustration of most of our college friends) was the emphasis placed on “knowledge”, on being “erudite”, on marking one’s territory in idea-space. Lischer comes across as very academic – to him, the importance of ideas can only come across in think space. In contrast, what you’re trying to do is extract the “Feel” by using the “Think”. For example, with the Peleshian, you let it speak for itself on a visceral level, rather than proceeding into an analysis of the narrative technique, or a pedantic discussion of the morality of abortion. (It’s things like movie that really do speak for themselves – and basic emotional impressions are often more indelible than ideas).

    What I think you’re really getting at is the idea that the deepest ideas, however “interesting” they may be or however much impact they had on intellectual movements, succeed because they are fundamentally human ideas that can be both “Felt” and “Thought”. It’s also a lot about performance, I think: You can present an idea so that it’s about the idea, or about the feeling behind the idea with the idea being there for people to remember if they should wish. Lischer seemed relatively uninterested and incapable in performing the feeling, whereas you clearly have learned to perform the feeling as much as the idea. Which is wonderful!

    The more I write here, I find myself stating the obvious and well-trodden – but I’m still really happy to hear what you’re doing :-).

    Benny

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