In the current issue of America magazine, a former professor of mine, Edward McCormack, of the Washington Theological Union, has an article titled: “As it is in Heaven: Can Re-imagining the Gospel revitalize the Church?” This essay focuses on several important and timely themes including the popular understanding of the Christian narrative, the responsibility and role of the “new evangelization,” and the centrality of good preaching in the mission to evangelize well (and, for that matter, correctly). There is a latent critique in McCormack’s view of one possible — perhaps, likely — effect of the pope’s call for a “new evangelization.” This is simply the reiteration and repetition of the status quo, the largely uninformed re-inscribing of the “popular piety” (to use McCormack’s term) view of the “good news.”
What Professor McCormack keenly points out is that this “popular piety” version of the Gospel, passed on from generation to generation in large part due to ineffective preaching and poor catechesis, is that it really only offers a “bad news” or even “dull news” version of what we believe as Christians. McCormack explains:
Instead of proclaiming the good news, we often proclaim the bad news or the dull news.
In popular Christian piety, the Gospel is presented in the following manner: the Son of God came to earth, died and rose to forgive our sins. He opened the gates of heaven so that if we live a good life, our souls will go to heaven when we die (and the souls of those who do not will go to hell). In this version of the Gospel, Christian hope is reduced to life in heaven when we die. Homilies, especially funeral homilies, hymns, catechetical lessons and books on popular piety have embedded this story deep within the Christian imagination.
Yet there are many problems with this understanding of the Gospel. It neglects important aspects of the New Testament, such as Jesus’ kingdom ministry, the centrality of Jesus’ crucifixion and bodily resurrection, life in the Spirit, discipleship, the mission of the church and God’s creative renewal of the whole of creation. This telling also assumes that the Gospel story moves from earth to heaven, which orients the Christian imagination toward life after death. As a consequence, Christians do not expect to encounter Christ at work in their daily lives. Directing our energies and desires toward heaven makes earning a place there the focus of the Christian life, rather than knowing and serving Christ in this world.
This popular version of the Gospel gives Christians no reason to transform society, and its otherworldly nature has little chance of re-energizing the Christian imagination. Perhaps Catholics are reluctant to share their faith because it seems to have little to offer those who struggle with everyday life.
The significance of moving from the status quo of uninformed and blasé devotional views of the Gospel to the rich, challenging, and “Good News” Truth of the Gospel is easy to see.
Drawing on his extensive background in Ignatian Spirituality, McCormack highlights the need for us to use our Catholic Imaginations to see the Good News of Christian life correctly.
To read it correctly, we must reorient our imaginations regarding the direction of the Gospel story. This story moves from heaven to earth instead of from earth to heaven. It moves from God’s future world into the current world. This is why we pray that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is powerful challenge and one that will certainly bring about a degree of discomfort in the pews and inside many pulpits. But why is that so? Partly, it is due to the fear of change and the desire for consistency that human beings seek. We “know” what we are going to hear each Sunday and what we want — although, it is not what we need — is to hear what we already believe told back to us.
Put another way, we want the homily each Sunday to be tailored to our particular preconceived notions of what is right and what is wrong. We want to hear homilies the way that we want to hear other “news,” changing the channel to our particular partisan cable news channel of choice. And, like watching FOX or MSNBC (if you subscribe to such a cultural binary), we will surely get a “version” of the “news,” but it will be saturated, packaged, and delivered in the editorializing hue of our preference. It will not be the Christian “Good News,” but a domesticated or abridged or “re-branded” version.
McCormack is making it very clear that as women and men of faith, we have a responsibility to stand up and take our medicine (to draw on a Lucan Gospel image). Christ is indeed the doctor-in-the-house, but few of us are ready to be seen at our appointment, and the last thing most people want is to go in for a check-up for fear that the physician will tell us that something is wrong with our lives.
With all of this talk of the “New Evangelization,” we should take McCormack’s exhortation to heart: return to the Gospel and proclaim what the Christian narrative, the kerygma, is to the world. The story, challenging and beautiful, comforting and discomfiting, is our collective story from which we should not shy. McCormack reminds us that:
This way of reading the Gospel also has profound implications for the way we understand our lives as Christians. It presents the Christian life as an event of God’s new creation, emerging out of the resurrection of Jesus. Cast in these terms, Christianity is a way of life coming from the future into the present, energized by the Holy Spirit and informed by the values of God’s new creation. It is a new kind of existence made possible by the risen Christ, who stands in the midst of our church communities and at the center of our lives. Christ fills us with God’s life and with all we value most—life, justice, peace, freedom and love. This new kind of existence motivates us to resist all that is opposed to God’s new creation. It compels us to share the good news with others.
Our we willing and ready to let Christ actually enter into our lives and change our way of living? Are we ready to hear the Good News and be agents of its proclamation in word and deed? Or are we simply content to live in our own worlds, reiterating the “bad” and “dull” news of the compromised Gospel?