In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time. “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.” To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic. Charles is overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program, which includes magnificent painting and sculpture, as well as a fountain of Bernini-like delicacy, and a chapel which was a riot of baroque decoration. Living within the walls of the manse, Charles mused, was to receive an entire artistic education. The beauty of the place would entrance Charles for the rest of his life, drawing him back again and again.
In the course of his many visits, Charles came, of course, to know the inhabitants of the house, Sebastian’s strange and beguiling family. Especially through Sebastian’s mother, the aristocratic and devoutly Catholic Lady Marchmain, he became familiar with the moral demands of the Catholic Church, especially as they pertained to Sebastian’s increasing problem with alcohol. For many years, Charles joined Sebastian in his friend’s rebellion against these strictures, but in time, he came to appreciate their importance, indeed their indispensability. Finally, at the very close of the story, we learn that Charles, the erstwhile agnostic had come to embrace the coherent philosophical system of Catholicism and to worship the Eucharistic Lord who was enshrined in the beautiful chapel at Brideshead. Many years after entering that chapel as a mere aesthete, he knelt down in it as a believer.
This brief and utterly inadequate summary of Waugh’s narrative is meant simply to highlight a ryhthm that obtains, I would argue, in effective evangelization. The best evangelical strategy is one that moves from the beautiful to the good and finally to the true. Especially within our cultural matrix, so dominated by relativism and the valorization of the right to create one’s own system of meaning, commencing with either moral demand or the claim to truth will likely raise insuperable blocks in the person one wishes to evangelize. (Who are you to tell me how to behave or what to believe? How can you be so arrogant as to think that you should impose your thought patterns on me?) This is precisely why moralizing and intellectualizing are often non-starters in regard to persuasion. But there is something unthreatening about the beautiful. Just look at the Sistine Chapel Ceiling or the Parthenon or Chartres Cathedral or Picasso’s “Guernica”; just read The Divine Comedy or Hamlet or The Wasteland; just watch Mother Teresa’s sisters working in the slums of Calcutta or Rory McIlroy’s golf swing or the movements of a ballet dancer. All of these work a sort of alchemy in the soul, and they awaken a desire to participate, to imitate, and finally to share. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the great advocates of the aesthetic approach to religion, said that the beautiful claims the viewer, changes him, and then sends him on mission.
The pattern is more or less as follows: first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!) and finally the true (now I understand!). A young man watches a skillfully played game of baseball, and it awakens in him a profound desire to play as well as those whom he admired; and then the actual playing of the game teaches him, from the inside, the rules and rhythms of baseball. A completely inadequate way of drawing a kid into the world of baseball would be to start with a clarification of the rules or with a set of drills. Rather, show him the beauty of baseball, and he will want to play, and having played, he will know.
The same applies, a fortiori, in regard to religion. I might suggest that the evangelist start with the Sainte Chapelle or the life of Francis of Assisi or the Little Flower’s Story of a Soul or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain or Gregorian chant, or perhaps best of all, a carefully executed liturgy of the Roman rite. These would function in the manner of Brideshead, captivating even the most bored agnostic. Then, the wager goes, the captivation would lead to a desire, perhaps vague at first, to participate in the moral universe that made those artistic expressions possible. And finally, the participation would conduce toward a true and experiential understanding of the thought patterns that undergird that way of life. First the beautiful, then the good, then the true.
I wonder whether this winsome aesthetic approach might prove more frutiful in a postmodern culture so instinctively skeptical of dogma either intellectual or moral.
“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article.” Thus wrote, or confessed, G. K. Chesterton in an essay entitled “Christmas that is Coming”, published in the Illustrated London News in 1906. Now, on the eleventy-first anniversary of Chesterton having indulged the “dangerous or disgusting habit”, I am following his ignoble example.
To be fair to myself, and to Chesterton, I don’t really think that getting into the Christmas spirit in the days and weeks before the Feast is exactly synonymous with celebrating the Feast itself. Isn’t such a spirit part of the necessary preparation? Aren’t we supposed to have a childlike glow as we do the Christmas shopping? Shouldn’t there be a Dickensian decorum to our preparation? Aren’t we meant to be full of the expectant joy of Bob Cratchit or Tiny Tim or Mr. Fezziwig? Isn’t a failure to get into the spirit in preparedness for the joyful Season a sign of Scroogish tendencies?
Having defended myself, and Chesterton, from any pharisaical guardians of the Feast, I’m going to risk the ire of lovers of Christmas by confessing that I prefer good old Father Christmas to that new-fangled Santa Claus fellow, the latter of whom strikes me as something of an interloper. Chesterton never wrote about Santa Claus, nor, for that matter, did Tolkien or C. S. Lewis; they wrote about Father Christmas. Nor is this a question of mere semantics. There is a real difference between Santa Claus and Father Christmas which should not be overlooked, even if they have been melded in our modern minds into something or someone akin to a synonym.
For one thing, Father Christmas is English whereas Santa Claus is American – and heaven forbid that anyone should suggest that Englishmen and Americans are in any way synonymous!
Father Christmas has his roots in the personification of the Spirit of Christmas in the Merrie England of mediaeval times, though he really came of age in the seventeenth century as a spirit of resistance to the efforts of the Puritans to ban Christmas after their victory in the English Civil War. Believe it or not, the Puritan-controlled English government actually legislated to abolish Christmas, considering, reasonably enough, that the celebration of “Christ-Mass” was papist. Since the celebration of the Mass had been outlawed, it was natural that the celebration of “Christ-Mass” should be outlawed also. Traditional Christmas customs were banned and the Purityrannical rulers of England declared, in league with a certain White Witch, that it would be always winter but never Christmas.
As resistance to the tyranny grew, Old Father Christmas became the symbol of “the good old days”, a personification of Merrie England, with its feasting and good cheer, and its celebration of the liturgical year.
It is this Father Christmas that is celebrated with appropriate rumbustiousness by Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis.
In a wonderful short story, “The Shop of Ghosts,” Chesterton writes of a mysterious toyshop and its equally mysterious proprietor, who was “very old and broken, with confused white hair covering his head and half his face, hair so startlingly white that it looked almost artificial”. Refusing to take any money for some wooden soldiers, he explains that he never has taken money. “I’ve always given presents,” he explains. “I’m too old to stop.”
“Good heavens!” his would-be customer exclaims. “What can you mean? Why, you might be Father Christmas.”
“I am Father Christmas,” the man responds apologetically.
Father Christmas then says that he is dying and offers an explanation for his imminent demise: “All the new people have left my shop. I cannot understand it. They seem to object to me on such curious and inconsistent sort of grounds, these scientific men, and these innovators…. I don’t understand. But I understand one thing well enough. These modern people are living and I am dead.”
“You may be dead,” his interlocutor replies. “You ought to know. But as for what they are doing – do not call it living.”
This would have been a good place for the story to end, the somewhat sullen point having been made, but such a lacklustre defeatist conclusion, all whimper and no whimsy, is hardly satisfactory from a Chestertonian perspective. As such, we are not surprised that the best is yet to come. The silence is broken by the entry of several ghosts from Christmases Past: Charles Dickens, Sir Richard Steele, Ben Jonson, and finally Robin Hood. All of these ghosts remark that Father Christmas looks much the same now as he had looked in their day. As for Robin Hood, he doesn’t understand how Father Christmas could still be alive because he had seen him dying seven hundred years earlier.
“I have felt like this a long time,” Father Christmas concedes.
“Since when?” asks the ghost of Dickens. “Since you were born?”
“Yes,” the old man says, sinking into a chair. “I have been always dying.”
“I understand it now,” Dickens cries, “you will never die.”
The paradox is that each generation believes that Father Christmas is dying, but he never dies. It is each generation that dies while Father Christmas lives on. And since Father Christmas is a personification of Christmas itself, Chesterton is reminding us that this unchristian and anti-Christian generation will pass away – indeed it is dying – but that Christmas will live forever, as the One who was born on Christmas Day will live forever.
“Christianity has died many times and risen again,” Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, “for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave. But the first extraordinary fact which marks this history is this: that Europe has been turned upside down over and over again; and that at the end of each of these revolutions the same religion has again been found on top.”
Father Christmas will never die because Christ has risen from the dead. He is immortal because he personifies the spirit of the birth of the Everlasting Man. And as for the rest of us, we can rejoice, in the words of a popular song, that man will live forever more because of Christmas Day.
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Are you are a writer? Looking for your outlet? Well here it is, your place in the sun. Just please be respectful, especially towards Pope Francis, he may be a listener, and we need all of those we can find! Now Michael Voris, on the other hand, is fair game. Just kidding Church Militant Fans.
Bishop Barron is an author, theologian, and evangelist. Known for his World on Fire ministry. He has served as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 8 September 2015. Article reprinted from World on Fire, www.worldonfire.org