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Catholic Global Network: Speak the Truth in Love Apologetics in the Age of the Seven-Second Attention Span By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

March 1, 2010
Most people know that Homer was a Greek poet, and most probably know something about his two great poems, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” But many of us don’t realize that when these poems were first created twenty-five centuries ago, they weren’t written down. They were part of an oral tradition. Each of these poems has about 11,000 lines, and professional bards recited them from memory. What’s equally amazing is that thousands of common people would gather to hear these performances and would listen to them spellbound for hour after hour. Of course, when I say “amazing,” I mean amazing to us in 1999. It wasn’t amazing to the Athenians or Corinthians of 450 B.C. For them it was normal to lose yourself in a poet’s voice for an entire evening.

And this wasn’t just a strange, ancient-Greek habit. Even a hundred years ago, people in our own country could stay focused on a conversation for long periods of time. Abraham Lincoln’s public debates with Stephen Douglas went on for hours. And average citizens would listen to them, ask questions, argue with the speakers, break for dinner, and come back for more speeches and discussions.

Then things changed.

Fifty years ago television arrived.

Forty years ago Richard Nixon became the first presidential candidate to lose an election because he looked bad on camera.

Thirty years ago the first televised war took over our living rooms.

Twenty years ago author Neil Postman warned us that “sound-bite politics” was killing our ability to understand and discuss serious issues. He also observed that the main contribution of television to American public life was to ensure that short, fat, or unpleasant-looking people would never again get elected president—even if they had the wisdom of Solomon and the virtue of Mother Teresa.

Ten years ago the Internet began to emerge.

And last summer, at a seminar in Denver, an executive for Macromedia—a software company that makes Internet tools and technologies—announced that web-surfers have an even shorter attention span than TV watchers. According to this executive, most major companies now assume that they have a maximum of seven seconds to download their home page and get their products in front of the typical web user before he or she clicks through to something else. Seven seconds. About the time it takes for a deep breath. That’s our culture’s emerging attention span. The point is: How do you preach Jesus Christ in seven seconds? How do you defend the faith in a deep breath? It’s a sobering thought with big pastoral implications for each of us.

The good news is this: As much as things change, they also remain the same. The terrain of history, culture, and technology is always changing. But the yearnings of the human heart never really change. People need to love and be loved. And they have a deep hunger for beauty and for truth. That doesn’t go away just because you have a faster modem.

No matter how rocky the soil of our culture may seem, we need to dig deeper. These are fertile times for the gospel. This is great soil for the message of Jesus Christ. In fact, the harvest can be very rich if we just do what Jesus asks us to do. Our job boils down to answering three simple questions: What is our mission? What are the obstacles we face in accomplishing it? And how do we overcome those obstacles to do what we need to do?

THE MISSION

Some of you have probably heard the following story before. If so, I’m sorry; you’re going to hear it again because it helps make a point.

Jack’s a good young Catholic man with money problems. So he goes to church and very piously and confidently asks God to let him win the lottery. The next lottery drawing comes, and he doesn’t win. So he goes back to church and prays even more earnestly—and this time Jack really tells God, in a lot more detail, how desperate he is. The next lottery drawing comes, and again he doesn’t win. So he goes back to church again, and now he’s begging like he’s never prayed before, and just as he’s working himself into a frenzy, God whispers to him: “Jack, please, meet me half way: Buy a ticket.”

God will work miracles, but he wants our cooperation. If the world isn’t a better place—if the world doesn’t know Jesus Christ—don’t blame God. We just need to look in the mirror. Carrying on the work of Jesus is what we’re here for. That’s why he called us. In fact, the mission statement of the Catholic faith hasn’t changed in two thousand years. It’s Matthew 28:19–20: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Simple, direct, no-nonsense. It’s the greatest mission statement ever given. But in reading and hearing this Scripture so many times in daily life, we can easily become dull to its power. So let’s examine it.

First, it’s not a suggestion or request. It’s a command. It’s a mandate. If you say you believe in Jesus Christ, you must preach the gospel. You must teach the faith. There’s no option B. Jesus doesn’t need our polite approval or intellectual assent. He doesn’t want our support from the sidelines. He wants us—our love, our zeal, our whole being—because through us he completes the work of salvation, which has never been more urgent for the world than right now.

Second, Jesus isn’t talking to somebody else. He’s talking to you and me. “Go teach all nations” couldn’t be more personal. Jesus wants you, and you, and you. Evangelizing is not just a job for “professionals.” We’re the professionals by virtue of our baptism. If the responsibilities of your life prevent you from going to China or Africa, then witness Jesus Christ where you are—to your children, your spouse, your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends. Find ways to talk about your faith with the people you know, and work to conform your life to the things you say you believe. Make your actions support your words, and your words, your actions.

Third, if Jesus speaks to each of us personally, it’s because each of us personally makes a difference. God didn’t create us by accident. He made us to help him sanctify this world and to share his joy in the next. The biggest lie of our century is that mass culture is so big and so complicated that an individual can’t make a difference. This is the Enemy’s propaganda, and don’t believe it. We are not powerless. Twelve uneducated Jews turned the Roman world on its head. One Francis Xavier brought tens of thousands of souls to Jesus Christ in the Far East.

If Christians were powerless, the world wouldn’t feel the need to turn them into martyrs. The gospel has the power to shake the foundations of the world. It has done so many times. It continues to do so. But it can’t do anything unless it is lived and preached and taught. This is why the simplest Christian is the truest and most effective revolutionary. The Christian changes the world by changing one heart at a time.

Fourth, Jesus doesn’t ask the impossible. If he tells us to teach all nations, it’s because it can be done. Nothing is impossible with God. When Paul began his work, conversion of the Roman world seemed impossible. But it happened. When Mother Teresa began her work in Calcutta, no one had any idea she would touch people of all nations with her example of Christ’s love. But it happened. Don’t worry about the odds. Just begin the work. If it’s his work, God will do the rest.

Fifth, “Go teach all nations” means all nations—the whole world and all its peoples. Jesus is not just “an” answer for some people. Or “the” answer for Western culture. He’s not just a teacher like Buddha or a prophet like Mohammed. He is the Son of God. What that means is this: Jesus is the answer for every person, in every time, in every nation. There are no exceptions. There is no other God and no other Savior. Jesus Christ alone is Lord. If anyone is saved, he is saved only through Jesus Christ, whether he knows the name of Jesus or not.

Ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues are very valuable things. They form us in humility, they deepen our understanding of God, and they teach us respect for our brothers and sisters who don’t share our faith. But they do not absolve us from preaching the truth. They are never an excuse for a lack of zeal. If we really believe the Catholic faith is the true path to God, then we need to share it joyfully, firmly, with all people and in all seasons.

A colleague told me a story recently that shows what real missionary zeal looks like.

This colleague was living in California, in Beverly Hills at the time, in one of the city’s last rent-controlled apartments. The neighborhood was heavily non-Christian, and every Sunday he and his family would be the only ones on the block who showed up at Mass. One Sunday morning he had to leave in the middle of Mass and run home for a bottle—or diapers, or something for the baby—and as he pulled up near his home, he saw a young man in a starched white shirt with his two young children, going from door to door with a Bible. The man was a member of some Evangelical church, and of course he wasn’t having much luck. He would knock on a door, say a few words about Jesus, and sometimes the people were polite, and sometimes they weren’t. But in every case the young man had the door closed in his face . . . and so he moved on to the next house with his children.

This colleague of mine forgot all about the diapers. He watched the young man and his children for about twenty minutes. And it left an impression on him that remains in his heart to this day. You see, that young Evangelical man was not only unafraid to be humiliated for the Lord, he was unafraid to let his children see him humiliated. That’s witness. That’s confidence in the truth of the gospel. There’s a lesson here: Defending the faith means first of all preaching the faith. And if we Catholics lose people to the Fundamentalist sects, we have no one to blame but ourselves for letting the fire for God go out in our own hearts.

Sixth, it’s not enough just to preach Jesus Christ and teach the faith. It’s also our job to actually bring others into a real, eternal friendship with God. And what creates this new relationship with God? Baptism—in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The sacrament of baptism matters. In fact, all of the sacraments matter enormously because they’re the normal means by which our Father shares his mercy and love with us.

Through the waters of baptism comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. And because of this gift baptism gives us new life in Christ, washes away our sin, and incorporates us into the community of faith. Baptism commissions and empowers us as apostles. It’s at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching about the role of laypeople. The council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity puts it this way:

“In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. . . . The laity, made sharers in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ [through their baptism] . . . are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like a leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ” (2).

The bottom line is this: Our mission is to advance God’s work of redeeming and sanctifying the world and to bring all people to salvation in Jesus Christ. That’s our mission in community as a Church and individually as believers. We own it. We can’t delegate it away. And it’s the same mission today as it was a hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, and one thousand years ago. Only the terrain has changed.

THE TERRAIN

I’m not really sure we need a “new” apologetics for the third millennium, because the content of our faith hasn’t changed, and the “old” apologetics of Augustine, Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Borromeo, and G.K. Chesterton is still very persuasive to anyone with an open mind. But the style of some apologetics in recent centuries has had one big flaw: It has lacked love. The early history of the Church is peppered with accounts of pagans who converted because they saw how much the Christians loved each other.

That still happens today, of course. But far too much of our energy over the past five hundred years has gone into doctrinal trench warfare, Christian against Christian, while the rest of the world has interpreted our divisions as a sign of our bankruptcy. You remember the song “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” Well, what will they know by our bickering?

One of the gifts that Vatican II left us is the insight that what unites us as followers of Jesus Christ is much more important than what divides us. I’m not suggesting that the differences among Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants don’t count. They do count. They’re often rooted in serious issues of truth, and we can’t just ignore them or wish them away. Out of respect for each other we need to address our differences frankly and patiently for as long as God wants it to take for us to achieve real unity. But we need to do it as brothers, not enemies.

Paul, who was certainly the greatest of all Christian apologists, tells us in Ephesians that we should be “speaking the truth in love.” He says pretty much the same thing in 1 Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. . . . If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, and have not love, I gain nothing.”

It doesn’t matter if we win the intellectual debate with a Fundamentalist or an unbeliever. We only really “win” if we love and respect that person while we also defend our faith. Martin Luther King said, “We will change people only if we love them—and they know that we love them.” That’s the kind of “new” apologetics we need. That’s the kind of apologetics which can touch human hearts, because the heart is always hungry for joy and beauty, truth and hope . . . and love enkindles all these things.

That’s so vital to remember, because surely this is one of saddest centuries in all of history. And by “sad” I mean literally filled with a sense of loss and the destruction of an entire worldview. When the Titanic sank in 1912, most of the men on board voluntarily gave up their seats in the lifeboats to save women and children. That was the code. That was their expected commitment to self-sacrifice, honor, and duty. It was sewn into the fabric of an educated man’s character.

Is this the view of our world today?

By 1918, nearly one million men had died in World War I in the fighting around Verdun alone, and the sheer volume and senselessness of the killing swept away a generation of European males. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that it can darken the heart for months and sometimes for years. Multiply that by tens of millions, and you have the spirit of despair which descended on this century after World War I. The Great War not only wrecked a political, economic, and moral order, it shook people’s confidence in themselves, in their tools, in their institutions—and even in a loving God.

That’s important, because we’re hardwired to need God, and if we lose confidence in the true God, we’ll replace him with something or someone else. The rest of the century shows that. We’ve tried again and again to become gods ourselves through this or that political ideology, or genetics, or technology, or economic power. And always we repeat the same cycle: pride in our own ability, failure at our own hands, pessimism about our failure, followed by new pride in what seems to be a new answer.

The story of this century as we close it is the tension we feel between huge confidence in what we can achieve and fear that we don’t really understand all the forces we’ve unleashed. Once we let go of God, all of our certitudes begin to unravel. He’s the glue. God is what holds things together. He created us with tremendous intelligence and dignity, but without him we’re just not smart enough and “whole” enough to give ourselves a common meaning. We can’t even keep control of our tools.

In 1995, the American Association of School Administrators published the results of a survey that asked parents, teachers, leaders from various professional fields, and members of the general public what kind of educational content would be important for students graduating in the twenty-first century. Every group but the leaders ranked computer skills and media technology higher than basic ethical values like honesty and tolerance. Good citizenship and the love of learning were low on the list. And study of the classics like Plato and Shakespeare was near the bottom.

Think about that for a moment. What it means is this: Most of the surveyed adults, including the parents, ranked ingenuity above nobility, tools above character. That’s called idolatry. And no matter how well intentioned, it’s unworthy of the human person. I don’t mean that computers are bad or media technology is something we shouldn’t master. Just the opposite. Used properly, these things can ennoble people and give glory to God. But they are not a substitute for life in the Spirit and things of real substance.

William Gibson wrote a classic science-fiction novel fifteen years ago called Neuromancer, and in it he coined—or at least popularized—a word that’s become part of our daily vocabulary, “cyberspace.” He defined cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination,” a fantasy made real by the free collusion of millions of networked minds. The only way we can live without God is through a similar kind of consensual hallucination. That’s at the heart of our addictions to speed and noise, our sadness, our impatience and restlessness, our dwindling attention spans, our pride and fear.

I think that’s what hell must be like.

The biggest challenge to Christ’s missionary mandate in our lifetime is simply waking people up from this hallucination; helping people find again the real joy, hope, beauty, silence, intimacy, and love that make life worth living. The world will never find these things without Jesus Christ. And it will never hear his name unless we speak it—and the hour is late.

WHAT WE CAN DO

Some of you are too young to have experienced the Cold War, but I can remember the air raid drills and how frightening and invincible the Soviet Union seemed in 1959. And I also remember how quickly the whole East bloc collapsed in 1989—the whole huge façade caving in because, at the end, it was just another dead clay pagan idol, and history is littered with them. That’s the nature of evil.

A Peruvian friend of mine once described the Devil as the greatest tactician in history. And also the worst strategist. He’s a master in battle—but he’s already lost the war and refuses to admit it. Evil is weak. Anything without God is weak, in the exactly same way that the strongest oak will die when it’s cut off from water. The only strength the Devil has is persuading us that we’re losers too, that we’re not worthy of love, that God doesn’t care about us, that God is angry with us and we don’t need him anyway . . . one lie after another until we give up and turn our backs on salvation.

Of course, we’re not losers, and God loves us infinitely. He loves us so deeply that he sent his only Son to live and die and rise again for us. So the final item in this reflection is understanding what we need to do to respond to God’s love. If we know our mission and if we know the human terrain where our mission must be lived out, then how do we accomplish the work Christ sets before us?

The first step is to wake ourselves up, shake off the hallucination, recover our perspective about right and wrong—and look around. We do this by praying. Pray every day. It sounds simple, but try it for a month: It takes some effort but it’s worth it. Praying, no matter how unfocused at first, clears the head and the heart. It also clears the ears so we can hear God better. Setting aside some silent time with God each day plants the first seed of sanity. It sends down deep roots, and the soul grows a little stronger every day. If we listen well enough and long enough, God will tell us what he wants.

Second, get to confession regularly and stay close to the Eucharist. You can’t lose hope when you know you’re forgiven. You can’t starve to death when you’re being fed by the Bread of Life. And the stronger you get in the Lord, the more you have to give to others. The sacraments are literally rivers of grace. They bring new life. They have real power.

Third, share Jesus Christ consciously with someone every day. Make a deliberate point of it. You don’t have to bat people over the head with the Bible to do this. Life naturally presents us with opportunities to talk about our faith with friends or colleagues. If we’re embarrassed, that’s just the Devil telling us we’re losers and no one would ever listen to us . . . but we already know he’s a liar. Nothing is more attractive than a sincere, personal witness to the truth. And remember that what we give away we get back a hundredfold.

Fourth, have a little courage. In the same Scripture passage where Jesus tells us to go make disciples of all nations, he also tells us that he’ll be with us always, even to the end of the age. If that’s so—and it is so—what are we really worrying about? What better friend could we have in the battle?

You know, sport can be a great metaphor for the spiritual life. Both involve a kind of combat. Vince Lombardi—who I think was always a man of real faith—said some things that apply as well to disciples as they did to football players. He said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.” He said, “Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” And he also said, “The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. That’s the essence of it.”

Finally, be faithful to those who love you . . . and to those whom God has called you to love. If you are, sooner or later you’ll begin to notice that the cup overflows, and you have plenty left over for others. So often we overlook the simple and obvious fabric of our daily life. But that’s where love begins. That’s where our discipleship starts. It’s the altar and the cross for each of us. It’s why Augustine wrote “to be faithful in little things is a big thing.”

I said earlier that God made each of us to make a difference. Whether we appear to succeed or appear to fail is not the point. In our lifetime, we may not see how God uses us to achieve his will. It’s enough that we try, and then profound things can happen. We live at the end of an era wounded by sadness and cynicism but also ennobled by men of great faith. And now we get to choose which path to follow, because while Jesus calls each of us by name, we have the freedom to say yes or no.

If we really want to preach the gospel and defend the faith in the years that lie ahead, the only apologetic that will work is to speak the truth in love through the witness of our lives. And it’s always been so. This is why Francis of Assisi eight hundred years ago and Mother Teresa in this century had exactly the same prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

God grant us the courage to speak and to live these same words.

——————————————————————————–

Charles J. Chaput is the archbishop of the Diocese of Denver, Colorado. This article is adapted from a speech given in July 1999 at the Defending the Faith Conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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