A small news item in this week's edition of The Irish Catholic caught my eye, and also gladdened my heart. Christian churches in Derry City are getting together to distribute free copies of The Gospel of Luke to every home in the city.
The report says:
The mission got off to a good start with the first of the thousand volunteers sought by the churches, to help distribute St Luke’s Gospel to around 40,000 homes, signing up at the project launch in Foyleside Shopping Centre.
Coinciding with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the launch attracted many shoppers to stop for a while and take part in the community singing, enjoy a variety of Scripture-based performances by a mix of local schools, and listen to readings from St Luke’s Gospel.
I think this is exactly what the churches should be doing. I don't want to take away from all the sterling social work done by priests and nuns and laypeople, or to dismiss that work's intrinsic importance, or its importance as an act of Christian witness. But we also desperately need to explicitly proclaim Christ. The Light is going out all over Europe.
Today's post-Christian society is happy enough to give a few minutes air time to a priest, as long as he is talking about "spirituality" in a vague kind of way. It will listen politely to a nun or a theologian or a Catholic intellectual, as long as they are simply bashing materialism, or the commercialization of sexuality, or even if they are complaining about euthanasia or marriage breakdown or the frenetic pace of modern life. Outside the ranks of the New Atheists and the rabidly anti-religious, there is a general openness to the contribution of "people of faith". It is seen as a legitimate counterpoise to the general thrust of society-- a thrust that most people, even liberal and non-religious people, are usually not that wild about themselves. Most people would agree that individualism can be destructive, that sexual freedoms can become a prison, that the wisdom of tradition is to be valued. Incidental allusions to Christ and the Gospels are indulged graciously, or sentimentally, or in the way that a politician's reference to one of Aesop's fables might be accepted.
I am not suggesting that Christians should disdain to speak on these terms. But it is crucial not to be confined to them. So I am very happy to hear that the churches in Derry are putting the focus of their public engagement where it belongs, on Christ and the Gospel.
I am all too wretchedly aware of my own shortcomings in this regard. I admit that I would not have the courage of those volunteers who will distribute St. Luke's Gospel to the homes of Derry, and who may face the scorn or wrath or indignation of at least some of the home-owners. I do not have the courage of the woman who handed me a flyer for the Vigil for Life as I was walking into the Omni Centre in Santry. I would not have the courage of the young Jehovah's Witness who approached me in King's Dominion amusement park in Virginia, and asked me if I had let Jesus Christ into my life.
I've always been terrified of approaching strangers for any purpose. Even asking directions of a passer-by is a last resort for me. I never understood how anybody can initiate a conversation with a stranger in a pub, or how a man can walk up to a woman he's never met and start flirting with her. Walking into a museum wearing a Superman costume would seem no more daunting to me.
I was just about to write "I'm not making excuses for myself", but then I realized that's exactly what I'm doing. I am making excuses. Anybody who knows me at all knows my religious beliefs, and I have defended and debated them on many occasions, but I am too cowardly to evangelize face-to-face.
I often find myself thinking about this subject-- the distinction between the private and the public, and the question of what is seemly to each. One of the things I like so much about this scheme in Derry is that the participants are indeed bringing the Gospel to the people, but in a respectful and comparatively non-intrusive manner.
I think (and this is just my opinion) that our attitude towards public and private life is increasingly dominated by two tendencies, which seem contradictory but which actually feed off each other. The first is a rather shameless readiness to force ourselves on other peoples' attention, and to make demands of their time and money. Of course, it is mostly commerce that drives this, but it's not just commerce. Charity, politics, the media and even private individuals get in on the act. It is the difference between a volunteer jingling a collection box and crying, "Help the homeless!", and a young person with a clipboard approaching you individually in the street and suggesting that you open a standing order. I wrote a letter to The Irish Catholic bemoaning this phenomenon.
The other phenomenon is the rise of a kind of militant privatism, a resentment of any encroachment from strangers or society or anything coming from outside one's own little sphere. Libertarianism seems to be the chosen philosophy of most ideologically-committed young people today, and often it is a kind of radical libertarianism in the mode of Ayn Rand, the writer and philosopher who asserted that altruism was evil. The idea that the State itself should be abolished is, today, far from being the opinion of a few crackpots. As well as this, our public discussion seems to revolve more and more around what you might call "housekeeping" matters than that age-old question, How then should we live? If an atheist wants to attack religion, he attacks blasphemy laws or public spending on religious schools. If a man wants to attack feminism, he criticizes the courts' treatment of fathers or the depiction of men in publicly-funded artworks. It is as though we have to appeal to the referee rather than each other, as though we have to prove that somebody else's views or way of life infringes our own rights rather than simply criticizing it for its own sake. It is as though we cannot claim an unselfish interest in society and humankind. It is as though every debate about society has to be the equivalent of flatmates arguing over who takes out the rubbish or how loudly music can be played.
Along with this, there comes a kind of peevishness about one's own privacy, a crankiness towards our colleagues and relatives and the man ahead of us in the queue for the ATM. How many stand-up comedians have you heard whining about the depredations of actually having to interact with their fellow human beings? Keep out of my face, seems to be the mantra. I also wrote a letter about this recently, to The Irish Times.
Of course, I think the two things are linked. The pushier we get, the more petulant we seem to become about our own privacy. And I think that anyone who really believes in the idea of a public life, as I do, should for that very reason be careful not to abuse his fellow man's attention and goodwill. And that is another reason why I hail the initiative of the Derry churches, and the simple and dignified way they are going about it.
One final thought; the fact that the event was launched in a supermarket is also to be commended. It emphasizes that Christianity is relevant to daily human life, and it reaches out to people who would never go into a church or community college or town centre.
Three cheers for the Christian churches of Derry City, then!