Somehow at one and the same time, He is the flower of all creation, the open, shining blossom of the Father’s love, and also the tightly furled kernel of blessed humanity, ready to become anything we need Him to be.
Ms. Nelson often has the unpleasant task of telling parents they cannot honor friends with the godparent role because they are not Catholic or because they are in an invalid marriage.
“No one gets involved in church ministry because they want to make people unhappy,” Ms. Nelson said. “It’s very difficult. If this person is taking tentative steps [toward the church] and is hit with obstacles, he’s going to say, ‘Why did I bother?’ and give up. And then I’ll think it’s my fault he’s turned away from Jesus.”
She tries to present the church’s teaching on godparents as a positive opportunity rather than a list of rules. “But sometimes the rules bring people back,” Ms. Nelson said.
Modern Catholics sometimes preen ourselves on our stealthy infiltration of the secular world, by which we are constantly evangelizing our unchurched friends, when if fact all we’re doing is sitting around drinking beer and making butt jokes, which religious and secular people do in perhaps slightly different ways, but there is a lot of overlap. In other words, maybe your stealth evangelization is so subtle, there isn’t actually any.
Our house seems to be on an LDS migration route, and it’s kind of awesome.
Someone apparently gave our name to them as a joke, and now the missionaries just keep coming. These poor gals knock on our door with the papal flag decal, enter past the window on which hangs two kitschy Greek orthodox suncatchers of Mary and Jesus (with sparkly beard!), and take a seat at our table, the Rublev Trinity to their left, a torn poster of Mother Teresa to their right, a Daniel Mitsui print of the resurrection behind them, and of course, front and center, a crucifix hanging from a thumbtack.
Then we invite them for dinner and say grace in Hebrew.
I’ve gotta hand it to these mormons, their poker face is top notch. They are all about finding common ground, at least at first; and so are we. They believe very strongly in the importance of family, and so do we. I gather there is intense pressure for LDS moms (much like moms in some Catholic communities) to present a happy, smiley, calm-and-blessed face to the world at all times — well, it’s nice to be able to sit with someone who just plain thinks it’s neat to have a bunch of kids. It feels good to talk about God and not feel awkward. It doesn’t happen often around here.
We always make it very clear (if our uberCath decor didn’t make the point) that we’re not interested in converting, and that the Church is and always will be our home. But we are still interested in talking to them, for a few reasons.
First, they look discouraged. They are young, and New England is pretty tough territory. We don’t really want to talk to anyone about anything, much less to strangers about Jesus. It’s an act of charity to let them say their bit, because that’s what they’re spending eighteen months trying to do. We don’t pretend they’re persuading us, but we do give them a chance — including a chance to answer questions about what they believe.
And that’s the second reason we invite them in and have a chat. I hope that, after we establish that common ground, I can plant a little seed in their mind that there is something more than what they’ve grown up with.
They generally come in pairs, one more confident than the other. So I ask questions of the less confident one. This time, for instance, I asked whether there was any shred of archeological or DNA or historical evidence that Jesus had, as they claimed, visited to the American continent. They both acknowledged that it was a good question, and then somehow we changed topics.
They also mentioned that women’s relief society was the oldest organization of women in the world and I says to myself, I says, BUT SAINT CLARE . . . But I let it go.
One thing I couldn’t let go of: the idea that Joseph Smith was the only one who could read the golden plates with special glasses. Beyond the comical idea of crystal goggles and an angel named “Moroni” (I suspect both spectacles and the name “Moroni” sounded more exotic to American ears in 1823), I just couldn’t get past the idea that God would do something so important, but be so freaking proprietary about it.
Here is this thing, the Book of Mormon, that appears literally out of the blue and abruptly changes wide, wide swaths of our understanding of what the universe is like, who God is, what life is for, what happens after death and before birth, and so on — and it all gets funnelled through this one guy (aged 14!). And everything hinges on him telling the truth and getting it right.
It seems like the opposite of what God would do if He really wanted people to believe, understand, and, well, meet Him.
We thought back over the Gospels and couldn’t think of another time that God acted like that. There has been a lot of “Go out and tell everyone what you know!” and “Go forth and spread the word!” and “Don’t keep this to yourself! It’s for everyone!” There was a lot of “Nope, you have to let those other guys in, too!” and even a certain amount of, “Oh, sorry, you don’t speak Greek or Aramaic? Well, this must be your lucky day!” A few times, Jesus told his disciples not to say anything yet, but to wait until after the Resurrection.
But there was nothing about “Here is a secret, and you need special decoder glasses to see it, and there won’t be any evidence, and you just have to believe that this one guy who said this one thing is telling the truth.” That . . . is not how you act when you want people to know the truth. That’s how you act when you’re trying to convince someone that you know something important, so you can make them do what you want.
I asked the younger missionary: “Doesn’t that worry you, at all?”
She paused. They talked a bit about good fruits. So I took a chance and told them about Father Maciel.
Now there was an example of someone who knew how to use secrecy, how to manipulate people with faith. I told them how he set up and designed and organized an entire religious order entirely for the purpose of hiding and perpetuating sexual predation. Every aspect of the lives of seminarians and consecrated women, and the students in LC schools, was organized to make them doubt themselves, trust authority blindly, and never tell anyone what was really going on. The goal was never illumination; the goal was obfustication, so that dark deeds could flourish unchallenged.
This, I said, is what happens when you decide you’re just going to trust this one guy who claims to speak for God, and you have to believe him just as you’d believe God. This is what you get.
There have been good fruits from the Legion of Christ. They do good work. And they’ve also been responsible for countless, countless ruined lives. Children defiled, souls lost. Because they said they were missionaries for Christ, but it was all about putting your faith in that one guy, that one guy who isn’t God.
It’s a complicated thing. Catholics have their own “family issues” to work out, as we struggle with ideas of papal infallibility, the authority of bishops, private revelation, and so on. We do need faith, and not just reason. We do need to put ourselves in the hands of people we trust. But you will never hear a good Catholic say, “Don’t ask that question about our Faith.” You will never hear a true Catholic say, “Don’t read that book about another faith.” You will never hear a Father of the Church say, “God isn’t interested in revealing the truth to someone like you.” And you will never hear God say, “You people stink. I’m leaving for several centuries, so good luck without me.”
Instead, you see Christ, a light in the darkness, illuminating the past, the present, and the future; and after Him, there is no more need for prophets (with or without special goggles).
Anyway, they wanted me to read The Book of Mormon. I said that I would try to read at least some of it if they would read Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, which is my standby for Catholic apologetics. It’s short, and small enough to keep in my purse. I don’t know if they are actually allowed to read it (maybe they will save it for after their 18 months of mission work are up).
You can’t convert anyone by arguing, or by crushing them with logic. But you can encourage people to ask themselves questions, and to show that you, for one, have asked those questions and have happily arrived at an answer that brings peace and joy at least some of the time.
These young LDS women had the guts and the strength to spend their time bringing what they thought was the truth to a very hostile territory. I hope I honored them by offering them my ears, my books, a few hamburgers and chips (I remembered not to give them Coke!*), and some questions. I came away from our conversation with a deep gratitude for my faith, and for its long history of intellectual rigor, and for Christ Himself.
If you are LDS and would like a copy of Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, send me an email with your address and I will do my best to get one sent to you.
*EDIT: Some of my friends have let me know it’s a myth that Mormons can’t drink caffeine. Sorry! It was an honest mistake. I am ready to hear I’ve made other errors describing what I understand about LDS theology, as well. Please feel free to make corrections in the comments.
Image:by Versageek via Flickr (Creative Commons)
About the image: The original photo showed a young female LDS missionary. I found the photo on a photo sharing site which had apparently incorrectly tagged it as free for commercial use under Creative Commons. Several of the woman’s friends have contacted me, asking me to take the photo down, which I have done. It sometimes take some time for the image to be updated when it’s attached to shared posts on social media.
Folks like this knock on the side doors of the Church, by asking ignorant questions about the Faith, or by starting conversations that annoy or disturb us, or by arguing and criticising the Faith. They rattle and bang on the side door, even though the front door is open. What should we do?
What’s the difference between feigned joy that cult members are required to display, and a suffering saint’s determination to smile at everyone she meets; and what does it have to do with the awful client with the beautiful blue eyes?
image: By Robert Pérez Palou (/) [CC BY 3.0 ( )], via Wikimedia Commons
I don’t have non-Catholic and secular Facebook friends merely because I want to proselytize them (although I try to answer any questions they have about my faith, and I’m delighted when I hear that they have learned something about the Church through me!). Instead, I have non-Catholic and secular Facebook friends because I like them, and find them interesting — and yes, I learn from them. Of course I do.
P.S.: I heartily recommend the book I mention, Peter Kreeft’s Your Questions, God’s Answers. I’ve been reading a section a day with the kids ages 9 and up, and it does a good job of answering questions, reviewing stuff they already know, or opening up discussions about things they really wonder about. (And the rule is always: let the discussion happen! Doesn’t matter if it sticks to the original topic or not. If they ask a question about God, then right now is the right time to answer it, period.)
The segments are short enough to read in five minutes or less. It’s intended for teenagers and is slightly goofy but not pandering. It’s theologically meaty and profusely studded with scriptural references, but written in a clear and chatty style that is easy to understand. Not every last section is a whizz bang success, but it’s a painless way to keep a regular conversation about God open, and some of the discussions we’ve had have been really memorable.
As an evangelist, I’m laboring under a triple whammy: I’m a New Englander, I’m shy, and I’m a Catholic. (Also I was in my pajamas, but so is half the country.) All three together mean that I’m entirely focused on closing the door as quickly as I can and getting back to my comfortable, private living room. I have almost zero inclination to tell a stranger, “Hey, have you heard about this magnificent truth which will transform you life? Let me tell you . . .”
But that is what the Pope (and all the Popes since Peter, for goodness’ sake) has been telling us to do: not to be content with hunkering down and preserving the Faith within our fortress, but to actively go out and spread the Good News.
Matt Clark, 39, is a teacher, print maker, and freelance illustrator who lives in Florida with his wife and growing family (they are expecting baby #7 in a matter of weeks). This interview is one of a series with religious artists. My questions are in bold.
You are Anglican, and make secular and overtly religious art; but on your website, you say, “I don’t believe art has to have biblical subject matter to be Christian.” Can you explain how your secular work is Christian?
Flannery O’Connor writes these stories about murder and mayhem, tattooed people, circus freaks, raging bulls . . . and you realize she’s writing about Christ the whole time. That’s the way I’m looking at my artwork — alligators, fish, saints, Moses, birds, whatnot.
I figure if God made all these things, I don’t know that we’re to draw a distinction between natural and supernatural.
El Greco was always showing heaven intruding on earth, with no clear distinction between where one stops and another begins. The scraps I feed my chickens, the bugs they dig up, they transform that into an egg. That’s magic!
I don’t want to sound like a pantheist — you can’t worship just as well on the golf course as in church. But I don’t like to draw sharp lines between religious and other art. Who I am is a Christian, and everything I do will be that Christianity.
It seems like your “overtly Christian” works are about making religious figures and scenes relatable and human.
Do you see that as a form of evangelization?
I do. C.S. Lewis talks about how we don’t need more Christian apologists, but we need more books on mechanics, physics, and medicine, written by Christians, so people realize, “Oh, Christians are doing this.”
Growing up Baptist, we did more than our share of knocking on doors. It’s probably the worst thing in the world. It’s much better to live out my Christianity, and have that life move into other people’s lives. This is how we witness. I don’t ever want to make propaganda artwork. I’m perfectly willing to talk to people, but I get really itchy around propaganda.
Since you teach at a Christian school, do you ever get any pushback for portraying or studying nudes in art?
Well [laughs], the administration frowns on using nude models in elementary school. But talks about nudity with my children come early, as we go to the beach. It is Florida.
In art school, we had lots of nude models. We were doing a three-hour pose, and I remember idly wondering if the model had any tattoos. Then I realized that I would know, because she’s naked in front of me.
Some artists abuse their work and make nudes pornographic, but I believe there’s such a thing as chaste nudity. In paintings of the Madonna and Child, Jesus is almost always naked, showing His genitals on purpose, really in the flesh.
It’s very affirming of the Incarnation to show nudity in that way. Nudity doesn’t equal evil.
Rembrandt takes this tendency [to pornographize the nude] and he uses it. Bath Sheba is a full length nude, sitting down, right after her bath. Her maid is drying her feet. It’s very, very lovely. You see she has a note, and there’s a look of sadness of her face, and you realize that’s her summons to the palace.
She’s beautiful, she’s ritually clean, and now she’s going to be defiled in a profound way. You’re in the place of David. Rembrandt is saying, “Look at this beautiful nude — but look at is as David looked at it.” He draws attention to your own tendencies to dehumanize people.
When you draw humans, they look a bit like animals, and when you draw animals, or skulls, or dinosaurs, they look human.
It seems like you’re constantly asking, “What is man, anyway?”
I do always ask that question. That’s why I love science fiction so much. “What’s human, what’s not human?” is the question they always ask.
The robot cyborg always ends up being more human than the protagonist. So what makes us people?
The first time I questioned this was in the Louisville Zoo. There was this gorilla, and I noticed his ear looked just like mine. I made the leap to looking at his face, and realized he was looking at me. I said to my wife, “He looks really unhappy” — and then he threw his fist at the glass and ran away.
We’re brought up to believe that animals are machines, only good as resources to be exploited, but I think that’s a terrible thing. I have some kind of relationship with the animal as a creature. That’s what it says in The Screwtape Letters: We are amphibious, animals, but spiritual as well. A creature, but immortal.
I suppose it’s a way for me to work out the Incarnation: What He’s done is good, very good; in fact, so good that He’s going to become a little baby to a scared little girl in a Roman backwater. I haven’t worked it all out in my mind, but somehow all the dirt and plants and animals and rocks and sand and water . . .
He liked these things so much, He wanted to be not just overseeing it, but involved in it.
And it seems like you are inviting the viewer to do just that: not just view, but get involved. You also write a lot about your work, which not all artists do.
I always appreciate when people explain things, or obscure the proper things. If you write clearly, you can think clearly. I want to think more clearly.
Have you ever started thinking more clearly through the process of creating art?
Back in college, I did this big piece on Romans for my senior thesis. It was 36 or 40 feet wide. I worked 40-50 hours a week for a couple of months on this one drawing. All I did was think and look and I started to see the whole book as an argument that St. Paul was making. This was at the University of Florida. There was no bashing of Christianity, but no one cared. They just said, “This is a neat drawing. Wow. It’s really big. I like the way you did this . . . Oh, Brian, I see you’re wearing your tutu in this one!”
I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Am I making a giant prayer, telling God something He already knows? Who am I making this for? Did I think it would be like a big [religious] tract?
I put myself in the drawing. I realized that the audience this drawing was for was me. The Bible isn’t something I need to yell out to other people. I’m learning these things for me, as a work of sanctification. Artists aren’t immune from their work. We’re part of the audience.
Got a few minutes? Take your teenagers , or your skeptical, meme-educated internet friend, or yourself through this simple, graphic explanation for why it’s perfectly reasonable to think that God must exist, and what kind of being we mean when we say “God”: Why God Exists: A Rational proof in graphic art form. It makes a heavy topic clear, and is written by a fellow who is thoroughly familiar with the dark alleys and dead ends that pass for logic on the internet. Here’s a little excerpt, where he’s narrowing in on the idea of an uncreated being:
He clears up common misunderstandings (Medieval people were gullible morons, right?) and defines poorly understood words (metaphysics means crystals and smudge pots, doesn’t it?). And it’s funny:
And yes, he covers the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This here’s the new evangelization, folks. Well done! More like this, please.