Be Authentic When Evangelizing
Part 3 of a Series on Authenticity: From our Oct. 21 issue
Welcome to the world.
Its primary cultural product, perhaps always, perhaps especially in the age of consumer capitalism, is the lie. Not any lie in particular, but a multiplicity of lies: the subtle lies found in the subtext of slick advertisements; the tacky lies plastered across the front pages of supermarket tabloids; the astonishingly bold lies that are peddled as "news" on network broadcasts. The ubiquitous prattle of untruth, most of it inane, forms the constant background noise of postmodern life.
Come, I’ll take you on a tour.
Here is a billboard. It promises you that if you eat this brand of yogurt, you will have better sex.
Here’s a television screen. It will tell you that you can live like an overgrown adolescent and still afford a supermodel girlfriend and a touch-screen phone.
Here is a newspaper, which will tell you that the president is the "Savior of the Universe." But at the Internet café, you will find out that he’s really the Antichrist.
Where should you look for the truth in all of this? Perhaps the universities? Ah. There you shall learn that there is no such thing as truth and that the best that you can do is strike an ironic pose.
That’s how it is, right? All good Christians know that the world is on the fast track to hell. Abortion. Contraception. Divorce. Same-sex "marriage."
It’s enough to make you want to build yourself a concrete bunker and hide out eating canned beans until after the Apocalypse.
Yet the saints seem to look on this age with optimism. It is an age of Divine Mercy. Mankind enters the new millennium across the threshold of hope. The eyes of the blessed look on the compost heap of modernism and see seeds starting to spring up; they feel the bright wings of the Spirit bent brooding over the world.
The question, then, is: How do we evangelize this world? How can the truth be told so that those who are wary and skeptical will be able to hear it? How can those bright little shoots of hope be nurtured into blossoms?
For the present age, the truth will not be received in the form of a metanarrative: It cannot make grandiose claims or present itself as an objective ideal, a cultural system or a universal solution.
People are numb to such claims because they have heard them used too many times to sell everything from laundry soap to presidential candidates.
The truth that is presented to the ironic postmodern world must be a truth that authenticates itself by the manner of its telling. It must be personal, subjective and deeply honest.
This kind of truth speaks to the human heart without passing through the intellectual roadblocks. It gets past security because it is familiar, and it escapes mere subjectivism not by being objective, but by being intersubjective.
Intersubjectivity is predicated on the notion that there is a deep wonder, a universal substrata, to human experience. By revealing what is most profoundly personal about ourselves, we end up speaking in a way that is instantly recognizable to others.
This kind of truth telling is convincing because it is verified within the heart of the listener: It doesn’t require complicated proofs or a long dialectic process.
If I reveal something of myself, and you can see that it is also true in your experience, then we will agree without a single word of contention.
Evangelization through sincere personal stories of salvation and Divine love is not easy, but it is easily faked. The standard conversion testimonial is its most common counterfeit. These narratives fail to move the unconverted because they are highly stylized.
Personal details are excised, and the teller risks nothing because the stories are all the same: "I was steeped in every possible sin, and then I heard Jesus calling to me in my heart. I gave my life to him, and, since then, I’ve been happy and redeemed."
No one but a conversion-story junkie is convinced by such blandly impersonal tales.
Genuine personal narratives must include our vulnerability. They must not try to set a "good example."
Postmodern people are not moved by good examples. They are suspicious of those who claim to be holy, healthy, healed — because it is everyone’s experience that the brokenness and the fear, the hurt and the doubt goes on, even after the altar call.
Christians must, therefore, risk being honest about what it is actually like to wrestle with virtue, to suffer with Christ, to persevere against sin. The "happily ever after" must always loom on the horizon, beyond the eschaton; it must not attempt to situate itself in the here and now.
This is what Christ showed his disciples when he returned after his passion. He told Mary Magdalene that she could not hold onto him, that the embrace which she longed for would have to be deferred until he ascended to his Father.
When Thomas doubted that it was really him, Christ did not reveal himself in a cloud of white light, but in his wounds, his vulnerability.
And that was how the disciples knew that it was truly, authentically He.