In the Thick of Things: Of Graham Greene, the Gospels, and Evangelization

Blue plaque outside Graham Greene's Birthplace, St. John’s boarding house (part of Berkhamsted School) on Chesham Road in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. The writer Graham Greene was born here in 1904 when his father was housemaster.
Blue plaque outside Graham Greene's Birthplace, St. John’s boarding house (part of Berkhamsted School) on Chesham Road in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. The writer Graham Greene was born here in 1904 when his father was housemaster. (photo: Photo Credit: “Wikidwitch”, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.
Flannery O’Connor

It was the end of finals week at the evangelical college where I work, and P.J. stopped by to say hello. “I just got done with my class on British apologists – you would’ve liked it,” he said. Like most of my students, P.J. is a Protestant, and we’d had friendly conversations the past year regarding theology and the Church. “The class read several Catholics – like G.K. Chesterton” (no surprise there) “and Graham Greene.”

Whoa, I thought, back up. Graham Greene and apologetics? It was a pairing that raised more than a few questions, for Greene was certainly not a conventional Catholic, let alone a defender of the Faith. In fact, he famously referred to himself as a “Catholic agnostic.” I probed a bit for answers.

Turns out, P.J.’s class had actually been an amalgamation of two other courses: a British Christian lit seminar on one hand, and a theology seminar on the other. Chesterton, of course, neatly straddles both worlds: His fiction includes wild fantasy and whimsical murder mysteries, and his non-fiction encompasses hagiography, comparative religion, and penetrating apologetics – the science of defending the faith.

Greene, on the other hand, seems more at home on the literary side of the equation. He excelled at tales of espionage and intrigue, drawing on his experiences as a war correspondent and British spy. Although he did convert to Catholicism as a young man in order to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, herself a devout convert and acquaintance of Chesterton, Greene held his adopted religion pretty lightly early on. Moreover, while it’s true that he wrote several novels revolving around faith themes (including his so-called “Catholic” novels), his experience of faith was a stormy one, and he publicly railed against both Pope and Church later in life.

Still, it was an intriguing idea: Graham Greene – apologist. In any case, there’s no question that Greene played a big role in my own conversion. I still have the shabby trade paperback edition of his book The Power and the Glory which I read while still flirting with Catholicism myself some 30 years ago. It’s the story of a renegade whisky priest on the lam during Communist Mexico’s fierce anti-Catholic persecutions. When I first took it up, I was working my way through the documents of Vatican II and any sound catechetical materials I could get my hands on – cobbling together my own makeshift Catechism of the Catholic Church in those treacherous years before the real thing was actually produced. Greene’s depiction of a flawed priest willing to suffer and die for his faith put flesh and bones on the precepts I’d been absorbing from those other sources. The novel was both gripping and moving – especially when I discovered that it was rooted in historical events – and it whetted my appetite for more of Greene’s stories as well as more of his Faith.

But does that make Greene’s fiction apologetics? No, I don’t think so. Greene didn’t write his story in order to convince the reader of Catholic truth – far from it. Rather, by concocting that story and telling it well, Greene created a realm in which readers met authentic characters, walked beside them, experienced their challenges and joys, and worked through their struggles with them. The Power and the Glory is a work of art meant to enthrall, inspire, and entertain, not to teach or indoctrinate. Even so, it incidentally communicates much truth about human frailty, the nature of grace, and the sacrifice involved in following a crucified God.

In other words, Greene’s tremendous success in storytelling indirectly, albeit palpably, provides for a glimpse Catholicity – how the Faith is actually lived, that is, how the Gospel itself is inhabited by ordinary sinners like you and me. In that sense, Greene is less of an apologist than an evangelist, and not even a conscious one at that. His stories evangelize insofar as they draw the reader into credible fictional worlds in which characters live and struggle and find redemption, often despite themselves.

It puts in mind other former students who’ve approached me over the years with their questions about the Church. Despite my best efforts, I’ve always known my answers fall abysmally short, and so, early on, I’d often punt and send them on their way with a Catholic apologetics booklet. It was full of pithy answers to the most common objections to the Faith, and I’d rest assured I’d done my due diligence.

Resources like that pamphlet certainly have their place, no doubt, but it rarely fit the bill for my inquirers. What they really were looking for, more often than not, wasn’t argument and doctrine, but testimony – an embodiment of the Faith in actual men and women.

So, I started giving them lives of the saints, and convert stories as well. Here’s the funny thing, though: At some point, I hazarded to pass along some Graham Greene, and that seemed to really strike a chord – so I opened the fiction floodgates: Diary of a Country Priest, Kristin Lavransdatter, and Mr. Blue; Walker Percy, Flanner O’Connor, and Evelyn Waugh. Little by little, my former students came to know Catholicism from the inside out through the widest variety of personal landscapes, both fictional and otherwise. It was no longer simply a mess of concepts and assertions, but a compelling series of vignettes – of pictures, that is, of faltering human creatures persevering in faith amid the trials of everyday life.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – it was my own experience after all, and the experience of countless converts. Precepts and polemics, no matter how convincing, are rarely adequate to entice anybody to become Catholic. Instead, it’s the witness of truth embraced – in stories, in friendships – that push us over the edge.

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with you? Your story isn’t all that interesting, is that what you’re thinking? Or you have so many bumps and potholes in your personal story that you can’t imagine how it could in any way contribute to the conversion or edification of anyone else?

Get ready for a shock: people curious about Catholicism want to see the bumps and potholes – your bumps and potholes in particular, if they know you. If the Faith has any meaning, any validity, any value, then it will have meaning, validity, and value even when we aren’t living it out perfectly. Sure, it’s great to read the lives of the Saints. Sure, it’s inspiring to read about Mother Teresa caring for India’s dying poor and to see Pope Francis washing feet, literally and figuratively, wherever he goes. There’s no replacing all that, but folks also need to see ordinary people like themselves – with foibles and shortcomings and too many bills to pay – striving to stay close to Jesus and live the faith regardless. Folks want, folks need to see the Gospel story enmeshed in others’ stories – and, again, that probably means your story – to have any hope that it can become their story, too.

That’s why Pope Francis has been harping for years about Catholics reading the Gospels regularly – daily even. “It is a good idea to have a small Gospel, a pocket-sized Gospel that you can carry around with you,” he said back in 2014, “and to read a short passage from it at any time of the day.” The Holy Father himself practices what he preaches, and he’s so intent on our imitating his example that he has more than once given away thousands of pocket-sized Gospels, as recently as last March: “I invite you to take this Gospel and to read it,” he said then. “There we find Jesus, Who speaks to us, in the Gospel!”

The more we immerse ourselves in Jesus’ story, Pope Francis is telling us, the more it becomes our own. It’s what St. Paul meant when he reminded the Corinthians of the Gospel “you indeed received and in which you stand.” That is, Jesus’ own narrative blends with our own to the degree that we cooperate with grace and continually identify with our Lord. When we read the Gospels, therefore, we’re simultaneously deepening our relationship with Jesus and, in effect, reading about ourselves! We’re walking with Jesus, we’re conversing with him on the road to Emmaus, we’re touching the nail holes in limbs and putting our hands into his wounded side, we’re meeting him in the garden and he’s gently inviting us along with Mary Magdalene to behold his Resurrected glory. “You need to go where you find him,” Fr. Rich Simon directed a caller in a recent “Relevant Radio” broadcast. “Sit in front of a tabernacle, read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, then when you’re done with that, read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Then, when you’re done with the Gospels, read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” It’s a simple and direct way to encounter Jesus afresh, again and again.

And it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve read it. Case in point: Consider the remarkable conversion of St. Francis of Assisi, who’d grown up hearing the Scriptures recited at Mass week in and week out, but one day a particular reading from St. Matthew about abandonment hit home. “He had heard it many times since his childhood, but the book has a peculiar feature,” writes Julien Green. “You can listen to it year after year, and then a moment comes when from out of its pages comes a soundless, but deafening, voice that you will never be able to silence.”

Such was the case for novelist Graham Greene as well. Despite his resistance and doubts, he received Extreme Unction on his deathbed and his peppery story concluded in the arms of the Church. “It was the end of a Catholic life passionately lived,” writes Fr. Alberto Huerta, “and surrendered generously to a forgiving and merciful God.”