Two Approaches To Culture: Evangelistic & Diagnostic

New books by Fr. Robert Barron and Dr. James A. Patrick are exceptional guides to the confused and confounding dominant culture

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“The best is the betting of one’s very life on behalf of Christ, the good, the self-denying and the dangerous.” — Dr. James A. Patrick

“The authentically Christian spiritual itinerary never ends with something as bland as ‘self-discovery.’ Rather, it ends with the splendid privilege of participating in God’s own work in bringing grace into the world.” — Fr. Robert Barron

[Robert] Graves really is writing about our own age, not of some remote future: of life in today’s United States …. He is saying that culture arises from the cult; and that when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests upon the spiritual order.” — Russell Kirk, “Civilization Without Religion?” 

A friend, having recently read Fr. Robert Barron’s review of Kenneth Branagh’s movie, “Cinderella”, sent me this quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman:

“With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty. We are bid to color all things with hues of faith, to see a divine meaning in every event.”

 It’s an apt description of a Christian cultural critic, and Fr. Barron is an especially fine commentator on culture, whether it be “high”, “low”, or “pop” culture. His new book Seeds of the Word: Finding God in the Culture (Word on Fire, 2015) is a collection of over 80 of his essays about movies (“Imago Dei: God in Film”), literature (“Take and Read: God in Books”), politics (“City On a Hill”), and culture at large (“Rays of Truth”). It is an exceptional example of an accomplished academic—Fr. Barron is a skilled theologian and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago—engaging with the good, bad, beautiful, and ugly found throughout American culture. 

It’s important to point out that Fr. Barron, who I’ve had the pleasure of working for on two catechetical series (“Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King”), is fundamentally motivated by a love for God, truth, and souls. In an homage written a week ago for the late Cardinal Francis George, Fr. Barron highlights the missionary vision and heart of the late Archbishop of Chicago. He notes that Cardinal George was not satisfied with Catholics taking a “counter-cultural” stance only, as “this can suggest a simple animosity, whereas the successful evangelist must love the culture he is endeavoring to address”:

But he saw a deeper problem as well, namely, that, strictly speaking, it is impossible to be thoroughly counter-cultural, since such an attitude would set one, finally, against oneself. It would be a bit like a fish adamantly insisting that he swims athwart the ocean. Therefore, the one who would proclaim the Gospel in the contemporary American setting must appreciate that the American culture is sown liberally with semina verbi (seeds of the Word).

This approach, as he explains in his book, is an adaptation of the patristic method of seeking out “seeds of the Word”—“hints and echoes of the Gospel that can be found, often in distorted form, in the high and low contemporary culture.” Such an approach, however, is dismissed by some Catholics, especially those who view any and all popular culture as essentially (or completely) depraved, immoral, and corrupting. That wariness—or antagonism, in many cases—is understandable but is ultimately far more reactionary than it is responsive; that is, it often betrays a certain insecurity and even, at times, a tinge of paranoia, failing to look for the “divine meaning” hidden in surprising places. 

A sense of this can be found in the titles to some of the movie reviews: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the Dangers of Consequentialism”, “Spider-Man, Iron Man, Superman, and the God-Man”, and (my favorite) “World War Z and the Council of Trent”. In the latter review, Fr. Barron begins by explaining how the Brad Pitt film about a zombie apocalypse intrigued him because “it provides a template for thinking seriously about sin and salvation.” After a short plot synopsis, he discusses how the Council of Trent expressed the Church’s teaching about original sin, and eventually concludes:

The great story of salvation is still in the intellectual DNA of the West, and that is why it pops up so regularly in the popular culture. And perhaps this is happening precisely because the Christian churches have become so inept at relating the narrative. To those who don’t know this fundamental story well, I might recommend a thoughtful viewing of World War Z.

Although his tone is consistently warm and positive, Fr. Barron does not shy away from hot button topics, taking on the anemic “social justice” of “liberal Catholicism”, anti-Catholicism, the “fetishism of dialogue” (a strong criticism of speeches given by Fr. John Jenkins and Pres. Obama at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement), gay marriage, terrorism, atheism, and much more. The final essay, “The Modern Areopagus”, is an apologia for the evangelistic work of the Word on Fire apostolate ( “If intellectually serious believers,” he insists, “absent themselves from the wider conversation and retreat to their libraries and classrooms, the public space will belong to the atheists and secularists.” His book is instructive, then, for both the non-Catholic seeker and the Catholic evangelist. 

Dr. James A. Patrick, the author of another recent collection, Essays On Modernity And the Permanent Things from Tradition (Tower Press Books, 2015), is also a theologian, teacher, and (his bio states) “sometimes apologist”. He has a doctorate in theology, has written academic works on history and theology, and founded the (now defunct) College of Saint Thomas More in Fort Worth, Texas, in the early 1980s. He also addresses culture, politics, and theology, with a keen and unflinching focus on “the permanent things” articulated by T. S. Eliot in Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and taken up by Russell Kirk in works such as the bracing Enemies of the Permanent Things (1993)—two books that served me well as a young man trying to make sense of cultural and political matters in the mid-1990s.

Patrick does not mince words, though he employs them with admirable deftness. In the Preface, he states:

Ours is an age of revolution which was incipient in the fall of Lucifer, prophesied by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and perfected in the series of wars between the motley crew committed to the defense of Eliot’s permanent things, broadly the flawed, humane, Christian tradition, and the apostles of modernity, that succession inaugurated by Ockham and perfected in his contemporary auxiliaries, Richard Rorty and Peter Singer.

Like Fr. Barron, Patrick situates his observations within the larger picture of philosophical movements, theological clashes, and historical upheavals. But if Fr. Barron’s cultural engagement is ultimately evangelistic in nature, Dr. Patrick’s is more often diagnostic. While his breadth of historical knowledge (much of it, but not all, Anglo-oriented) and obviously conservative inclination (in the traditional, Burkean sense) often brings Kirk to mind, his sly yet direct style is more in the mold of Walker Percy. This is evident, for instance, in chapters titled “Practical Advice About What to Do When the Barbarians Come” and “A Taste for Tyranny: Abortion as Political Theater”, both of which would have fit nicely into Percy’s wonderful (posthumous) compendium, Signposts In a Strange Land, published nearly a quarter century ago.

Patrick is a masterful essayist, never wasting time or words, writing with verve and punch. In a short essay, “Freedom and Truth”, he argues that the modern, secular state is quite simply an enemy of truth. “Dialogue replaces encounter based on truth,” he notes, “therapy replaces repentance, punishment, and conversion. In such a society the enemy is the thinking person.” Political correctness is the suffocating chloroform that stifles freedom, presenting itself in the attractive garments of science and rationality. But the Christian vision of society is vastly different:

Christian culture has a duty to teach about Christ. The most important fact about any civilization is its religion, those things that bind. Barbarism, the tendency of civilizations in decay to suppress thought, hope, and beauty on behalf of immediacy, pleasure, and violence, has its own religion: the culture of the public schools, leftist media, and Planned Parenthood—the latter based on violence against little children. The articles in its catechism are environmentalism, sex education, death education, self-esteem, and gender neutrality. These ideas it will teach, not so much by argument as by assumption, with all the zeal of St. Dominic.

In “A Taste for Tyranny” Patrick draws straight, strong lines between belief and freedom, disbelief and slavery, saying that “to talk of moderation is nonsense because all issues are manifestations of one issue: Do men belong to other men or to God?” In such a harrowing setting, barbarism is not a matter of being crass as much as it is a matter of supporting the killing of the most vulnerable and innocent among us: the unborn: “Statism, collectivism, and tyranny–and the abortion culture–are inseparable partners.”

What, then, to do? “First”, insists Patrick, “stay close to Christ. … Pray that you will be genuinely converted.” It is the advice of saints and martyrs, contrary to the “wisdom” of an age that has little or no time for Christ, prayer, or conversion. There is much more, but this points to a consistent theme in the collection: the necessity of holiness, of being salt and light in a decaying culture. In the end, the evangelistic and the diagnostic are two sides of the same sanctified coin, for it is impossible to witness well without knowing the specific ills and errors of the age. “In modernity”, states Patrick, “the tendency to knowledge is to create an ever more tightly defined elite engaged in a  conversation none but they can understand. The duty of Sacred Doctrine is to speak to all sorts and conditions of men, urging the truths that alone can heal their souls.” 

On this point, and so many others, Fr. Barron and Dr. Patrick agree, and so their books are worthy companions, well suited for those seeking to give witness and observe wisely, to preach with clarity and to analyze with precise charity, seeing a divine meaning in every event.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.