A good general rule for preachers is this: If a story does not serve the gospel, it will distract from the gospel. Too often, homiletical "illustrations" employed to illuminate the scriptural text displace the text. How often have you gone away remembering the cute story but forgetting the scriptural text, or even the point of the story? Richard Lischer teaches preaching at Duke University and writes in the Christian Century:
"In the pulpit, preachers tell the story because God got involved with a particular people in a specific time and place, and that involvement generated a history in which we are privileged to participate by faith, baptism, and the common life. We [preachers] are not generic storytellers. We are nailed to a particular plot. The preacher's task is not to tell bunches of substitute stories, which in the end deflect our attention from the searing reality of the person before God, but to tell that one story, the one that precedes the general category of 'story,' and to tell it in such a way that it makes our stories permeable to it."
Americans United for Life (AUL) was established in 1971 and I count it a privilege to have served on its board for many years. In a November 30 story, The Wall Street Journal profiles the organization and its lead lawyer, Clarke Forsythe, who joined the organization upon graduating from Valparaiso Law School and has been with it ever since.
The Journal story includes this:
"'They really are the puppet masters behind President Bush and other antichoice politicians and they want to see Roe v. Wade overturned,' says NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan, who battled against legislation inspired by the group a decade ago in the Mountain Legislature. 'They were using the states as laboratories for their antichoice measures and they used them very effectively,' she says. Ms. Keenan says that approval of the New Hampshire law by the Supreme Court 'would open the flood gates for more antichoice measures and you can be sure this group will lead the way.'"
The puppet metaphor is nasty, as NARAL tends to be nasty, but the perception of AUL's influence is accurate enough. There are prolifers who criticize AUL's "incremental" or "step by step" approach. It is modeled in part on the NAACP's decades-long effort to outlaw desegregation. The goal, say the prolife critics, is to ban abortion and ban it now.
Alliances and friendships have been strained, and sometimes broken, by these disagreements. The comprehensive goal of the prolife movement is and must always be: Every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. In a sinful world, that goal will never be achieved completely. But the "protected in law" part can be achieved and, please God, someday will be achieved.
Toward that end, there are many courses of witness, persuasion, and strategy. Here applies what is possibly the only wise thing Chairman Mao said: Let a hundred flowers bloom. (Of course he mowed them down as soon as they dared to take him at his word.)
Among the many efforts aimed at creating a society less hostile to the culture of life, Americans United for Life plays an indispensable part, and is eminently deserving of the attention and support it receives.
From the Arts & Letters site, this is Umberto Eco, the Milanese linguist and author of the medieval monastic mystery, The Name of the Rose: "G.K. Chesterton is often credited with observing: 'When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything.' Whoever said ithe was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity."
GKC is often credited? Of course, because he wrote it. The "age of outrageous credulity," however, is apt. Some years ago, Peter Berger published A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity. Christian nostalgics frequently refer to the late middle ages, the thirteenth century, say, as the "age of faith." Enlightenment rationalists just as frequently saw it as the age of credulity. They are two very different things, although some are inclined to the view that one man's faith is another's credulity. That may be, as it turns out, Eco's view, but he has interesting observations along the way.
Eco: "The 'death of God,' or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Churchfrom strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.
"It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.
"The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God. He said: 'No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something greater.' Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency. The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret 'container' with his or her own fears and hopes."
This is confusing. We demand something more than that Godgreater than which can not be thought (Anselm)became one of our kind? As an aside, Arthur Rubenstein seems an odd authority to invoke on these matters. As an aside to an aside, William Sloane Coffin once told me that, when he married Rubenstein's daughter, the great maestro said, "I don't know if I like having Billy Graham for a son-in-law." To which Bill promptly responded, "And I have mixed feelings about having Liberace as a father-in-law." Obviously, Bill being Bill, he took the Billy Graham reference as an insult.
But back to Eco: "As a child of the Enlightenment, and a believer in the Enlightenment values of truth, open inquiry, and freedom, I am depressed by that tendency. This is not just because of the association between the occult and fascism and Nazismalthough that association was very strong. Himmler and many of Hitler's henchmen were devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies. . . . And today, if you browse the shelves of any bookshop specialising in the occult, you will find not only the usual tomes on the Templars, Rosicrucians, pseudo-Kabbalists, and of course The Da Vinci Code, but also anti-Semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
"I was raised as a Catholic, and although I have abandoned the Church, this December, as usual, I will be putting together a Christmas crib for my grandson. We'll construct it togetheras my father did with me when I was a boy. I have profound respect for the Christian traditionswhich, as rituals for coping with death, still make more sense than their purely commercial alternatives.
"I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 'What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?' The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that."
Believing that the Christian myth is clear, logical, and coherent, as he apparently does, it may be that Eco has not abandoned the Church quite so definitively as he suggests. Remember J.R.R. Tolkien on the "true myth," which, if one hangs around it long and longingy enough, may elicit something like true faith.
Multiculturalism can be a commendable sensibility, writes Pope Benedict XVI in the forthcoming issue. His article is titled "Europe and its Discontents" and includes this:
"Unless we embrace our own heritage of the sacred, we will not only deny the identity of Europe. We will also fail in providing a service to others to which they are entitled. To the other cultures of the world, there is something deeply alien about the absolute secularism that is developing in the West. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. Multiculturalism itself thus demands that we return once again to ourselves.
"We do not know what the future of Europe will be. Here we must agree with Toynbee, that the fate of a society always depends on its creative minorities. Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, helping Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and thereby to place itself at the service of all humankind." (To become a subscriber to FIRST THINGS, check out the "Subscribe" button above.)
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