Friday, October 07, 2011

Guided by a revelation

Listening to this on the way to work this morning, I thought of this.

Why? Because conveying new ideas to people is like evangelism. Sort of. Kind of. Well, it's similar.

Let me explain.

"Evangel" means, almost literally, "messenger of the good news." If you take out the prefix, you get "angel," a word we recognize as English (although it's actually Greek in origin) and which we associate with mythical winged beings. Not sure where the wings came from in tradition, but the purpose of angels in the New Testament (where the word appears, and so enters English, eventually) was to be "messengers," which is what the Greek word meant. So to be an "evangel" is to be a particular kind of messenger. But there we stumble immediately, because now the question is: "What is the 'good news'?"

TED (as in the conference) has an advantage over the church here. TED is for people who already know what TED speakers are talking about, and who want to hear something in a new or novel way. I try to imagine my mother at a TED conference, for example, and I know it would mean nothing to her. Far from being exciting and invigorating and inspiring, it would be confusing, bewildering, and boring. There is a basic principle of epistemology at work here, one we often overlook.

To learn something new, you have to connect it with something familiar. Too new, you can't learn it at all. There's a reason we start children off with simple addition and then subtraction, rather than with calculus and elementary analysis. Not only are the latter more complex than the former, they are too unfamiliar. Our entire educational system is built on this simple premise: in order to learn what you need to learn in college, you first need to learn what we have to teach you before college. The new must always be attached to the familiar, or learning it is almost impossible.

Which is why it can be so difficult to teach people philosophy. Some of it is quite familiar, some of it is not. The latter is considered "esoteric" by those who don't know enough about it. But it is esoteric largely because it is so unfamiliar. (I am rather like Socrates in that way; I still contend philosophy is simply the study of wisdom, and that wisdom is fundamental to thinking about human existence, and thinking about human existence is something everyone does throughout most of their lives. But I digress....). So if you start with the familiar, and then introduce the new, you have a better chance of explaining your new ideas.

Unfortunately, the most familiar thing about evangelism is the notion of salvation; even if it isn't our notion of salvation at all.

Mention "evangelism" and most people think of the earnest Christians who are concerned with the eternal state of your immortal soul. Already there are so many assumptions being made there the purpose of evangelism is very off-putting, and not just because the evangelizers tend to be rather annoying and single-minded in their purpose. They are single-minded because of their theology, however, not because of the demands of evangelism. It is one thing, in other words, to have good news to tell; it is another thing what "good news" you are talking about.

In the most evangelical of Christian circles (and often the most obnoxious, too), evangelism is not just the message of salvation, it is salvation; and more importantly, it is not just the salvation of the unsaved. In the theology of the evangelical (the ones who knock on your door, who are concerned with your salvation), salvation is not just for you, but for them as well. They take the Great Commission of Matthew ("make disciples of all nations") as a directive to convert the world to Christianity, or fail as Christians themselves for not doing so. Their salvation from damnation is tied not only to their acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (into their hearts, they used to tell me. Did I have Jesus in my heart, I was often asked in high school by very concerned peers, usually the best looking girls in school. No, I replied, he'd just clog a ventricle.), but to their ability to save you, too. For this soteriology (theology of salvation), the believer is not saved until the unbelievers are saved, too. And so you get the endless cycle of evangelism as conversion to a particular theology, a particular credo, a particular set of beliefs. So you get Jehovah's Witnesses who come to my door repeatedly, even after I tell them I'm an ordained Christian minister. Ordained, Christian, and a minister I might well be, but since I'm not of their theological beliefs and principles, I am not yet saved, and their salvation depends on recruiting me.

And that, too often, is the face of evangelism.

It doesn't have to be, of course; but to put a new face on evangelism requires we abandon this model first. "We" being those of us who are Christians, but who don't think our salvation is of primary importance, and that our salvation is tied to yours. Those are not the ties that bind. That is not the love of God we proclaim. This is not the commission we were given. If we have any commission, it starts a bit earlier in Matthew's Gospel, with the sheep and the goats. The question of the salvation of your eternal soul is not so important as the question of your life here and now. It is said that St. Patrick evangelized Ireland not by preaching, but by doing, by helping the daily lives the people led, not by promising a better life in the beyond. And, of course, there are the words attributed to St. Francis:

"Preach the gospel ceaselessly. Use words, if necessary."

The gospel should be strange and new. And it should be apprehended by revelation, not by discovery. This is the epistemological mistake we make. The TED conference is about discoveries, things revealed because someone peeled back the obfuscation and found the true reality beneath, followed a path of reasoning to understanding, a path the rest of us can retrace, can be led down to the same conclusion. And there is nothing wrong about that, but the very idea of the gospel is based on a different understanding of understanding, a different epistemology altogether. The very concept of the gospel comes by revelation, not by discovery. And revelation always comes through action, never through reason. Words are logos. Revelation is not.

So there is no TED conference for evangelism, because the gospel is in the world, but not of the world. It is revealed, not discovered. And it is, as Wittgenstein said, a record of experience, not a doctrine handed on:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).

As my seminary professors told us, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is impossible from an historical perspective. It has never happened in human history, there is no precedent for it, aside from the usual claims of resurrection, common at the time of Jesus of Nazareth. (Thus the epistemological problem: something entirely new cannot be entirely known.) But those claims are not accepted as history, so how can this one be? However, the evidence is that something happened to the followers of Jesus, to the disciples and later to Paul, and that others had an experience that caused them to be believers, to start a movement which later became a church which later became a world religion. Something happened, even if empirically we cannot say what; they had some experience, which they identified as an encounter with the risen Christ. They were "simply describing what happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it." And it was never described as a discovery; it was always described as a revelation.

The TED conference is a model for the world. With TED, discussion leads to discovery. But with the claims of Christianity, revelation leads to discussion.

It's hard not to connect all of this, with this:

There is order here, and a kind of vague organizational structure. There is a schedule of activities posted for every day. People get fed from a kitchen in the middle of the park. The marches generally go off on time, and the park is developing its own internal institutions, like the free library that Eric Seligson tends along one wall— battered paperbacks, everyone from Howard Zinn to Robert Ludlum, donated by the protesters or by passers-by. The first batch of books got ruined in the rain when the police forced him to remove the blue tarps because they were "opaque" and you couldn't see what was underneath them. Seligson replaced them with clear plastic bins. "You know, this is sort of an anarchistic bunch — kids — but I really am amazed for the respect they have for the word," he says, "for literature of all different kinds, not just political. There's a real reverence for what has been written that has surprised me, since they eschew whatever came before, all the thought that came before. They entertain everything. You know, all the Isms, as well as the entertainment reading. We have the romance novels, too."

People looking for "a coherent message" in the park would do well to talk to Brendan Burke, a tall, tattooed truck driver with a degree from NYU and The New School, who's based at the center of the park, where four or five young people are crouched over laptops, shouting into the wind in their own way.

"People are informed today. People are online," Burke explains. "People in Kansas do yoga, you understand. Country's different, you understand? There's no more mooks in the citizenry. We are working people and we're not getting a fair shake, so we took to the streets. It's an irrational act, an act of passion, but we need to use self-control and respect. Those who want to go down with the ship will go down with the ship. Those who will be there will be sensible people who are out here for a reason. The kids who are out here who just want to party, well, they're beautiful children and we protect them every night. I can't even tell you what's going to happen after today. The cops may sweep this when the landlord says I want them out.
"This is not Tahrir Square. This is not Tompkins Square Park. This is not Yuppies against squatters. This is about minds. We need help from people who know. We need help from people in the financial industry who know. They should be here, too. He should want to see a better community. I want to see change in a systematic and legislative way. We're looking for real results. We're looking for protection for people. We're down here trying to play bills. It's serious out there, but it's quiet, because it happens at everyone's kitchen table. It's happening household-by-household. There's a sense out there, which I hope what's going on here will dissipate, that there's something wrong with me. I'm a jerk because I can't pay that bill. There are working men who will march tomorrow. It's all about people, who feel they got duped. There needs to be a systematic legislative change, so that this cannot happen any more."
Do I mean OWS is a Christian movement, or should be? Or that it is depending upon some revelation from a deity for people outside the movement to "get it"? No; but the basic approach of OWS is the same as the basic approach of the early Christian church: you don't get it, until you get it. And there is no simple message here, no single phrase or word or idea that sums it all up.

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:26-35, NIV

That's Luke's version of early church evangelism. Philip is guided by a revelation from God, and reveals not a singular idea, but "the good news about Jesus." And what was that? Presumably more than "Jesus Saves" or "Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?" ("Lord" and "Savior" being words that would have made more sense in Luke's culture than in ours, and had far less to do with religion and Christianity in particular, than they do today).

It is not too much to say that OWS is demanding a change of perspective, a whole sight, or all the rest is desolation. It is not too much to say that is the claim of Christian evangelism, too. And while evangelism must use the tools of the world, just as OWS is using Verizon to access the internet, evangelism can still be in the world but not of the world. Because, unlike the discoveries discussed at TED, evangelism is about the revelation given in a human life; a revelation that can change and challenge a life. Are we all meant to be evangelists if we are Christians? No. But we are all meant to preach the gospel; and use words, if necessary.


  1. Rmj, 'you don't get it until you get it,' is a good way to speak of OWS and the other places where occupations take place. People are gathering for different reasons. When you ask them why they're there, you get different answers. But all of them know all is not well with us at this time, and all has not been well for some time.

    And if Democrats think the protestors are present in support of their party, well they'd best think again.

  2. Anonymous9:04 AM

    RMJ, many thanks for this post. I have the unenviable task on our church council of evangalism. Having struggled much of this year to get to what that should mean when I am personally offended by traditional "saving" people and also where that is culturaly alien to an ELCA congregation, this post really helped. I used sections of it this week to kick off discussions at our monthly council meeting to good effect. I found it much easier to think about what is the good news I would want to carry to another person than what is my faith. If asked to describe my faith I get muddled and wander off on tangents trying to describe what can't be described with words. Among even a small group like our council each person's faith can be very different. The good news though seems much more approachable. For examples I used, "Hope instead of desperation", "The new commandment is to love one another" as part of the good news. I made myself sit down and try and write out some of what I believe is the good news and shared it with everyone. We are each going to try the same thing and share that with each other next month. (I am interested to see what will be the same and different). The goal is to guide us as individuals, a group and a congregation acting in Christ in what we do as individuals, a group and a congregation. We all were very taken by the quote from St. Francis, it is ultimately how we act that matters, not some words. I will let you know how we do, many thanks again.

  3. Anonymous--

    Yes, please, let me know. The model for evangelism should be service, not testimony. IMHO.

    I'm very interested in how this works out for you and your fellow church members.

  4. Nice article, thanks for the information.