Vol 42 No 2
Evangelization 2008: Telling the Story in Cyberspace
THE FOLLOWING letter was written in 1970 to the editor of The Times by Mrs Valerie Eliot on the occasion of the death of Bertrand Russell at the age of 97. Mrs Eliot’s husband, the famous Anglo-American poet, had died some five years earlier in 1965.
Sir, My husband, T.S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: ‘You’re T.S.
Eliot’. When asked how he knew, he replied: ‘Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about’, and, do you know,
he couldn’t tell me.’
Do we find ourselves smiling at the predicament of one of the great philosophers and mathematicians of the twentieth century, seemingly perplexed and floundering when asked the most simple yet profound question a human being can pose? Or are we more amused at the casual impudence of a taxi driver who expected a brief and concise answer while dispensing the change? In as few words as possible, he seems to be saying, give me a capsule answer to the meaning of life!
‘What’s it all about’ is a question that refuses to go away. As Stephen Hawking observes in A Brief History of Time, ‘We find ourselves in a bewildering world. We want to make sense of what we see around us and to ask: What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is?’2 The first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of St John are addressed to two of John the Baptist’s disciples: ‘What do you seek?’
Questions such as these have been the traditional provenance of religion, but the materialist worldview espoused by the so-called ‘new atheists’—people such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris—asserts that the ‘modern scientific method is the only way for reasonable, truth-seeking people to gain knowledge of the real world.’ Ironically, such a claim itself demands an act of faith. To the new atheists we could put this question: ‘What are the scientific experiments that lead you to conclude that science alone can be trusted to lead you to truth?’ We could also ask a further question, ‘Can you deny that there are avenues other than scientific method by which you experience, understand and know the world you inhabit?’3 As human beings we have ideas and experiences that we cannot explain rationally.4 The 17th century physicist, mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal once observed, ‘The heart has its reasons which are unknown to reason.’5
Problem and Mystery: Logos and Mythos
The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) makes a useful distinction between ‘problem’ and ‘mystery’. ‘Whenever a problem is found,’ Marcel wrote, ‘I am working upon data placed before me...’.6 Problems can be subjected to empirical verification and scientific testing. A mechanic repairing an engine, a computer programmer tracking down an error in the system, a student grappling with a mathematical equation, a scientist studying the AIDS virus, a person challenged by a crossword puzzle, or someone absorbed in a whodunit, are all immersed in a ‘problem’. Time and experience will eventually yield an answer to these kinds of problems. They may totally absorb us, at least for a while, but we are capable of divorcing ourselves from them and getting on with something else.7 The ancient Greeks called this kind of logical, pragmatic and scientific mode of thought logos.8
‘Mystery’, as Marcel defines the term, describes those problems that engage us at a more profound level of our being. A mystery is a problem that encroaches upon and invades its own data.9 It involves those questions in which we ourselves are immersed, questions that we cannot put to one side. Mystery includes what Darryl Reanney calls ‘the bruising questions that trouble this generation as they have troubled all that went before it: ‘Who am I? Where did I come from? What happens when I die? Is there a God?’’10 We are actors, not detached spectators, in the theatre of mystery. The answers to ‘mystery’ are not ‘in the back of the book.’ They may be rationally explained, but unlike ‘problem’ they are not amenable to scientific proof or empirical verification.
If we are to communicate the Good News to our contemporaries we must discover how to navigate our way through the realm of mystery. Traditionally, we have done it through myth—mythos in Greek—a word that has the same etymological root as ‘mystery’. Sadly, we use the word ‘myth’ today in a pejorative sense; it is a story that may sound plausible at first hearing, but it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. Prior to the last federal election, for example, the Howard Government ran a number of advertisements about the workplace relations system. It is a ‘myth’, the advertisement told us, that ‘nowadays, employers can do practically anything they like.’ The ‘fact’ of the matter is ‘No, they can’t.’11 Myth in this sense is synonymous with ‘misinformation’ or ‘falsehood’.
Bill Moyers describes mythology as ‘an interior road map of experience, drawn by people who have traveled it.’12 It ‘points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.’13 Myths may or may not be based on historical events. The truth of these epic stories, however, lies beneath the narrative level and we will be unduly distracted if we become overly preoccupied with their historicity. Being children of the Enlightenment we have developed a scientific view of history; ‘we are concerned with what actually happened’ rather than what an event had meant.
The Journey of the Hero. Our Own Story Writ Large!
The American writer Joseph Campbell has written extensively on the subject of myth. One of his most popular works is entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The significance of the title is the realisation that the heroic figure in all the great stories of humanity embarks upon what is essentially the same journey of discovery. Whether the story be Homer’s Illiad or Odyssey, or the story of King Arthur in Camelot, Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, Wyatt Earp in the American West, Tarzan in the jungles of Africa, Luke Skywalker in worlds yet to be discovered, or even Bilbo the Hobbit deep in the Lonely Mountain—we are essentially hearing the same story. Only the ‘face’ of the hero and the setting of the story change. And ultimately, the story of the hero is our own story writ large! The great stories of humanity ‘carry the keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self.’14
Story and myth give us our identity. ‘When a nation is in trouble, it often returns to its traditional stories to look for direction and healing, to regain a sense of what made it great in the past and what will nurture it into the future…Individuals, families, and communities also have their identifying stories that link them to who they are, to their culture…A region or a nation has its story concretized in shrine, statue, museum. A person without a story is a person with amnesia. A country without its story has ceased to exist. A humanity without its story has lost its soul.’15
All of us, consciously or otherwise, adopt a narrative framework (or story) to make sense of the world around us. As M. Scott Peck observes, we all have ‘an explicit or implicit set of ideas and beliefs as to the essential nature of the world.16 Our view of reality ‘is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are…If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.’17 Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, tells of an interesting phenomenon he read about in James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. The American naturalist William Beebe came across a strange sight in the jungle of Guyana. ‘A group of army ants was moving in a huge circle. The ants went round and round in the same circle for two days until most of them dropped dead. The reason is that when a group of army ants is separated from its colony, it obeys a simple rule: follow the ant in front of you. The trouble is that if the ant in front of you is lost, so will you be.’ By contrast Rabbi Sacks reflected upon a wonderful tutor he has recently acquired—a satellite navigation system. ‘What happens is this. Once the machine has worked out the route, a polite lady’s voice tells you something along the lines of: ‘Keep straight for 300 yards, then turn right.’ Normally, this would suffice. But as anyone who has shared a journey with a Jewish driver knows, the response is likely to be: ‘What does she know? I’ve been driving this car for 20 years. I know the neighbourhood like I know my own mother. Anyone knows that in 300 yards, you turn left.’ What happens then? Well, ‘it goes silent for a few moments…It then sends up a signal: ‘Recalculating the route.’ Seconds later it provides you with a new set of instructions, based on wherever you have landed up as a result of going left when you should have gone right.’18 Not a bad metaphor for evangelization!
Evangelization is about telling the story, about sharing the narrative framework that gives our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. As Christopher Booker observes, ‘At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar of all forms of human activity. In one way or another they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story.’ Stories are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence. ‘We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage.’19
Evangelists must therefore be effective storytellers. Patrick Dodson, an Australian Aboriginal leader who had been thoroughly trained in European thought patterns tells this story against himself. He was once addressing an Aboriginal community and one of the elders sat on the ground beside him. After a while the elder became agitated and started constantly interrupting him with the advice, ‘Talk in pictures, talk in pictures.’ Bishop Geoffrey Robinson makes the observation that much Christian preaching on Sundays would vastly improve if preachers paid heed to the advice of this Aboriginal elder rather than speak in abstract ideas. 20
Telecommunications Revolution: A New Set of Challenges
Talking in pictures has been a perennial challenge for preachers. The telecommunications revolution now offers evangelists a totally new set of challenges but also a bewildering range of opportunities. According to a survey released on 18 March, 2008, by Nielsen Online, Australians now spend more time online than watching television. We spend 13.3 hours per week watching television, and 13.7 hours online. On average, Australians are spending 84.4 hours per week across a range of media and leisure activities, up from 71.4 hours in the previous 12 months. This is a significant portion of our spare time considering that the average Australian is only awake for around 112 hours per week. The internet participation rate in Australia now stands at 80 per cent, well above the global participation rate of 20 per cent.21 More Australians than ever before are accessing the internet, but fewer Catholics are attending Mass regularly. Last year the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released the results of a research project on Catholics who have stopped attending Mass. Weekly Mass attendance has fallen from an estimated 864,000 in 1996 to 765,000, or 15.3 per cent of the Australian Catholic population, in 2001.22
What implications do those figures have for evangelization? How can the church participate in the media marketplace and how can the media be used as a means of reaching out to the large percentage of Australian Catholics who no longer attend Mass regularly? The recently-released pastoral plan for the Archdiocese of Sydney lists Evangelization and Spiritual Renewal as its first priority, and it commissions the ‘Office for Evangelization, in partnership with Catholic Communications and the chancery, to develop a website providing information relating to evangelization by June 2009.’ Catholic Communications is also charged with the responsibility of developing ‘a programme for the utilisation of new communication technologies to enhance the dissemination of Catholic teaching by December 2008.’23 The Archdiocese also plans to use the internet as a means of tapping into the enthusiasm generated by World Youth Day in Sydney next July.
Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London’s City University, believes that newspapers are dying in the United States, and the death knell is also sounding for newsprint in Britain and across the rest of Europe. Sales of big city regional papers in the US and Britain are in freefall. As a journalist he is saddened, but as an ‘unashamed digital revolutionary’ he can see that we are now ‘in the process of moving from one news platform to another. The stagecoach is giving way to the train.’24 This trend away from print media should lead to an examination of the effectiveness of diocesan newspapers, particularly in light of the success of internet services such as CathNews, launched in 1997. CathNews is a daily news service with prayer, meditation and Catholic website reviews. It is the most visited Catholic website in Australia, providing a mix of news and prayer updated daily, which is also available free of charge by email. As of February 2008, there were more than 15,000 email subscribers and almost 9000 visits to the site each day.25 Religious periodicals such as The Tablet, America, National Catholic Reporter, and Compass are available online at a fraction of the cost of hardcopy subscriptions.
Evangelization in Cyberspace
The Church has already launched into cyberspace to proclaim the gospel. Most dioceses, religious orders, church agencies, Catholic education offices and a growing number of parishes have already harnessed the internet for the task of evangelization, and many of them have impressive websites. The Archdiocese of Brisbane, for example, has just substantially remodeled its website, and it is an impressive introduction to all sorts of Church activities including evangelisation, education, information, everyday prayer and spiritual growth, communication and organisation.26 And then there are blogs. Check out, for example, Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s blog - a professional but personal sharing of the Archbishop of Boston’s reflections and experiences.27 On the local scene, a number of priests have a Facebook profile. See, for example, Bishop Julian Porteous’s profile (although you’ll have to sign up with Facebook to connect with the bishop through this medium).28 Bishop Peter Ingham of Wollongong presented his Lenten Pastoral Message on YouTube,29 and the Australian Catholic Bishops recently issued a Pastoral Letter on Internet Safety, accompanied for the first time by an introductory video, presented by Bishop Ingham and posted on YouTube.30 This Pastoral Letter acknowledges that the newest phenomenon to sweep the Internet is known as social networking. ‘Young people, in particular have flocked to these sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, which are seen as being the electronic equivalent to hanging out with your friends. Simply by creating a profile on one of these sites, you can share all manner of information with those people who you nominate as one of your social networking ‘friends’. This can include photos, profiles of your likes and dislikes, as well as messages, music etc. The Church in Australia is helping young people to engage in faith-based social networking with the emergence of a number of such sites.’31
In the musical comedy My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle is fed up with elocution lessons and sings, ‘Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!’ Well, Eliza, will you settle for a picture, an image, a video clip? Technology now offers us new platforms and opportunities to proclaim the Word and reach out to people who no longer attend church regularly. As pastor of a Sydney parish I have been experimenting over the past four years with Powerpoint (and now, after a conversion to Apple, Keynote) as an aid in preaching. The use of images and video clips offer new opportunities to break open the Word. I also make copies of my homilies available electronically (and also in hard copy), and a growing number of people receive a weekly copy via email.
A four-year-old child awoke one night frightened, convinced that in the darkness around there were all kinds of spooks and monsters. Absolutely terrified, she ran into her parents’ bedroom. Her mother calmed her down and, taking her by the hand, led her back to her own room where she put on a light, tucked her back into bed, and gently reassured the child with these words: ‘You needn’t be afraid, you are not alone here. God is in the room with you.’ The child replied: ‘I know that God is here, but I need someone in this room who has some skin!’32 Jesus is the eternal Word of God become flesh, and in our day we must we put electronic ‘skin’ on our proclamation of the Gospel, to incarnate its truth in picture, image and story, and proclaim it throughout cyberspace with an ever-increasing range of platforms, such as websites, podcasts, videocasts, blogs, MySpace, and Facebook. Never before has the church been confronted with such opportunities and challenges for evangelization.
Geoffrey Plant is pastor of St Luke’s Parish, Revesby, NSW. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Kenneth Gregory (ed), The First Cuckoo, (Unwin Paperbacks, 1978), 309.
2 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, (Bantam Books, 1988), 181.
3 John F. Haught, ‘True Believers: Have the new atheists adopted a faith of their own?’, in America, May 5, 2008, 17.
4 Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth, (Canongate, 2005), 2.
5 Martin Turnell, (Tr & Ed), Pascal’s Pensées, (Harper & Row, 1962), 95.
6 Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having, (Collins: Fontana Library, 1965), 185.
7 cf. Kenneth T. Gallagher, The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel, (Fordham University Press, 1962), 31-2.
8 Karen Armstrong, 31.
9 Gabriel Marcel, 186.
10 Darryl Reanney, Music of the Mind, (Hill of Content, 1994), vii, viii
11 This full page advertisement appeared, for example, in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, on Friday August 3, 2007.
12 Quoted in Joseph Campbell (with Bill Moyers), The Power of Myth, (Doubleday, 1988), xvi.
13 Karen Armstrong, 7.
14 Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, (Fontana Press, 1993), 8.
15 William J. Bausch, Storytelling: Imagination and Faith, (Twenty-Third Publications, 1984), 33.
16 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, (Arrow Books, Reprinted 1999), 200.
17 Ibid, 45.
18 Jonathan Sacks, ‘The prophets are our unflappable sat-nav, not the lost car in front,’ The Times, February 4, 2006.
19 Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots, (Continuum, 2004), 2
20 Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, (John Garratt Publishing, 2007), 52.
22 The Research Project can be downloaded as a PDF file from http://www.ppo.catholic.org.au/researcharts/researcharts.shtml#NatCount
23 The Sydney Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan can be downloaded as a PDF file from the Archdiocesan website: http://www.sydney.catholic.org.au/home.shtml
24 Roy Greenslade, ‘Move over: journalists will have to share their space’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, May 1, 2008, 13.
28 http://www.facebook.com/people/Bishop Julian Porteous/682773456
31 The Pastoral Letter on Internet Safety can be downloaded as a PDF file from http://www.acbc.catholic.org.au/bishops/confpres/200804271910.htm
32 Slightly adapted from Ronald Rolheiser, Seeking Spirituality, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998), 72.