Little Alfie sentenced to death, in spite of his parents’ pleadings and offers of succor. Governments and schools indoctrinating children in soulless and hazardous ideologies. Christian businesses compelled to support personal choices that are contrary to their religious beliefs. Sexuality reduced to entertainment = rampant sexual assault and intimidation. American media elite gathering in Washington D.C. to applaud jokes that unabashedly trash Christian principles.
Not hyperbole—reality. Today, the public square is a dangerous place to be a Christian, unless you’re willing to render to Caesar what belongs to God.
Where will it end? The endgame is obvious if you’ve been paying attention for the past fifty years: societies ruled by the “enlightened”, with the authority and power to control ordinary people, at the expense of personal dignity—in a nutshell, the modern Chinese model. Though wary of admitting it publicly, many of the so-called intellectual elite embrace this model, because they expect to be in the ruling class, or because they are convinced this new order will produce their newly minted definitions of peace, justice, and prosperity.
Anyone who opposes this project—especially a Christian with traditional beliefs and values—is the enemy, and must be marginalized or neutralized by ever more aggressive means, as we’ve witnessed in recent generations.
Now is the time for more than just a tiny percentage of Christians to actively engage the broader, ambivalent, and even antagonistic culture with our written and spoken words and actions. Not words and actions directed at other Christians, or like-minded people, but engaging the culture where it is here and now, at its heart—in the Rome of the 21st century, as Paul did in the Rome of the 1st century. Risking everything.
We must speak to an increasingly hostile culture, and we must do it now.
Here’s the rub: many Christians avoid, or dismiss as frivolous or worthless, engagement with a hostile culture, but the consequences are plain to see.
I’m sharing my own experience not because I’m an exemplar of how to do it, but because I have been doing it for many years: dozens of articles and hundreds of letters published in the mainstream media, and speaking publicly in many forums, some hostile. Many of these contributions could have been better, and a few shouldn’t have been voiced or submitted, but, for the most part, these principles, ideas, responses, challenges, were in a voice too few hear any more.
That goes for storytelling too, and before anyone insists that stories are irrelevant because they aren’t factual or “truthful”, or useless if not explicitly Christian, consider the literary works that first alerted the West to the deeper truth—that is, the horrors—of Soviet communism, not histories or political treatises or expert journalism, but George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. Consider C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories that formed many who weren’t Christian.
This thirty year public mission has been lonely—at times, frustrating and discouraging. Few Christians take it seriously, few clergy provide encouragement, and many look askance at lay engagement in actively challenging the culture. This sounds harsh, but considering the dearth of parish and diocesan programs related to this mission, along with the many pro forma responses I’ve received to suggestions and inquiries, it’s no wonder so few Catholics are engaged in this essential work. On more than one occasion, I became so discouraged I decided to quit: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like a fire burning in my heart. I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”
Some prominent people are boldly and eloquently challenging the culture, but far too few to make a dent in the momentum of the endgamers: George Weigel’s powerful article on the Resurrection in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan’s reliable Christian voice, Jim Caviezel’s films and public witness, but such as these are few and far between. We need thousands of Christians—an army—to take up this mission, locally, regionally, nationally, and beyond—and not just in forums where we are conversing with each other either.
What subjects ought to be addressed? In a word, everything: culture, family life, politics, the arts, ethics, science and other scholarly subjects, education, you name it. Christianity encompasses all of these.
How do we go about it? What are the rules of the road I’ve learned, mostly by trial and error? Remember, I’m speaking about engaging an ambivalent or hostile culture, many having a distorted notion of Christianity. The more hostile the forum, the more explicit appeals to Scripture or dogma should be avoided. Instead, focus on reason, evidence, beauty, choices and consequences, examples of double standards and other fuzzy thinking. Hold up publicly accepted exemplars of wisdom or virtue. Get your facts straight. Avoid personal aspersions and attacks (where I’ve failed more than once). Make your written submittal or verbal address as layman-accessible as possible. Back up what you say with evidence or examples.
Be timely, topical, and pay careful attention to the requirements for publications—word count, personal information required. When composing or speaking, prepare well, then accept imperfection with a sporting spirit. Whether the Washington Post or the local PTA or a faculty meeting or a class assignment or a board meeting, don’t fire off or submit the first draft, or speak unprepared. Convey a generous rather than a bitter outlook.
This is more difficult than even a decade ago, as public arena gatekeepers—media, universities, policy purveyors—have convinced (deceived, really) many into believing that Christians and other traditional believers are hateful, racist, homophobic, and anti-science, thereby unworthy of contributing to the public debate, charges not deeply reasoned or demonstrated with evidence, relying on slogans, emotion, and false appeals to fairness and freedom. We must break these gates down, always with charity and generosity, while remembering that courage, fortitude, and perseverance are virtues too: “Be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves”.
Don’t think that by laying low or by publicly accommodating these people you and your family will be able to live a privately Christian life. These gatekeepers are constantly tightening the vise—what was personal and private a decade ago is now fair game. This is what you better think and say and, if you don’t, we’ll find you and punish you, take your job, take you to court, ridicule you in the public arena, subject you to threats.
The blowback I’ve experienced is nothing in comparison to the experiences of so many persecuted for their faith, but in the thirty years I’ve been engaging the culture through the written and spoken word, I’ve received many nasty letters, emails, phone calls. During my professional career, in which I led several companies and taught at several universities, I worried about how my public voice might affect my family, my companies and my job. Now, at 64 and counting, I’m convinced that younger, fresher voices are better suited to engage today’s culture.
We must win this war of ideas. Though labeled “haters” by a hostile culture, our ideas are better, more life giving, more generous. If we find creative ways to convey our message, most readers and hearers will recognize the ideologies peddled by the “enlightened” elite for what they are—foolishness, or worse. We are ceding the field to buzzards. We must eagerly and selflessly take on this mission, not in lieu of Christian service, or family life, or personal formation, or prayer (God forbid!), but we dare not embrace these essential things in lieu of courageous witness in today’s Roman Forum. No matter the cost. Isn’t this what the early disciples did?
Every parish and diocese should have a prominent culture-engagement program, led by laymen with appropriate experience and skills; not traditional evangelization programs, because todays’ culture needs leavening before it’s prepared to hear the Gospel.
There’s no time to lose.
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