Noelle Mering is the Arts and Culture editor and social media manager for helenadaily.com. She studied philosophy and theatre at Westmont College in California and did graduate work in philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Noelle and her husband live in Southern California with their six children.
Not being much of a royal watcher, I’d observed bits of news about the wedding only peripherally. Pictures of the beautiful couple, looking chic and happy appeared on my various news and social feeds. Having heard rave reviews of Episcopal Bishop Curry’s sermon, I tuned in eagerly to hear what he had to say.
While his passion and style were attractive, and the ardency with which he delivered his message inspiring, I came away thinking that his message about love sounded much like what we hear all the time from the culture at large: love feels right, it feels good, it’s from God (or a higher power), it’s not selfish, it’s powerful and can change the world.
Besides the passion, what persuasive value it did have was in potentially helping remove certain road blocks to Christianity in the minds of some. He wasn’t the white evangelical man that many people have come to prejudicially dismiss and disdain. Nor was his message harsh, off-putting or challenging. It was appealingly given, by an appealing messenger, and his words were true.
Also showing up in my newsfeed last week was the video of Bishop Barron giving a talk at Google. In listening to him I was struck by certain similarities of circumstance. Both men were speaking to the people present physically, as well as to a larger audience virtually. Both men are Christian shepherds and were expected to speak in their capacity as such. There were differences in duration and kind. A wedding sermon is not a Google talk by any means, but both men surely formulated their words keenly aware that this would be an opportunity to reach a captive audience made up of many non-Christians. Bishop Barron had a time advantage, but anyone familiar with his videos knows he’s able to pack a lot into a much shorter period of time as well.
Each man communicated the Christian message in a way that was palatable to modern ears. But if you study their words, only one had any meat that might stick with a listener a month or a year or a decade from now.
Bishop Curry mentioned redemption and sacrifice, but without expounding on those concepts, they seemed like just the sort of words Christians say. As a Christian, l was able to fill in the blanks and nod along enthusiastically — yes love feels right, yes it’s from God, yes it’s powerful and can change the world! But he left it vague enough that every listener likely filled in the blanks with whatever lifetime of presuppositions about love that he or she already had.
In contrast, Bishop Barron begins with the universal longing for beatitude: happiness without condition or terminus. He then goes through what might be possible candidates to satisfy that longing — wealth, honor, power, pleasure — and engages the audience with a philosophical, Thomistic exercise to show why these four categories cannot possibly be our final end. Ultimately, our beatitude must be found in God who is love, and because of the nature of love, our happiness is in giving and communicating that love.
Bishop Barron appeals to universal desire and universal experience. It’s both entirely accessible and profoundly challenging. Rather than pandering to modern man, he elevates us by addressing who we are: beings with both intellect and will, who need to hear not only what’s appealing, but also what will push us to search further and think more deeply.
Christianity offers what modernity cannot: the fulfillment of our deepest longings. In knowing what our ultimate purpose is, we can then determine who we are, why we are, and what we ought to do. It’s a message that, in its fullness, is both universally appealing and radically different. As Ross Douthat said recently, in neutering our message we end up presenting to the world a Christianity that’s a little more liked, but much more easily ignored.