Yesterday evening I watched an episode of The Journey Home, which is a show on the Catholic channel EWTN. I really like the show (apart from the presenter's irritating chuckle.) The drama of religious conversion is always compelling, as it unites the most cosmic and far-reaching of themes with the most personal details. (Here is my own story, for anyone who is interested. It has afforded some amusement to internet atheists.)
But it's not just the subject matter of The Journey Home that I like. It's the whole format. Just one person talking for almost an hour, with no props or graphics or cutaways. There is nothing more electrifying than the spectacle of someone telling a story that matters to them, one of which they have first-hand experience, with minimal interruptions. The studio is also handsome, with a picture of St. Peter's in the background, and comfortable-looking furnishings all around. (I don't understand why so many television studios seem to aspire towards garishness, or to project an atmosphere of discomfort and austerity.)
I do wish there were more converts from atheism or agnosticism on the show, since these are the ones I find most interesting and relevant. However, they are usually converts from various brands of Protestantism, and yesterday evening they had a former Calvinist.
He had a lot of interesting things to say, but the one that struck me the most, possibly, was his comment that the first thing that impressed him about the Christians in his school (he came from a nominal Christian background, so I guess he was a convert from agnosticism in a way) was their refusal to laugh at his jokes about Christianity. This made him realize how serious they took it.
Sometimes I think Christians are too quick to treat the Faith as a joke. I do understand the reasons. We want to show non-believers that we are not fanatics, that we are not weird, that we are secure in our beliefs, that being a Christian doesn't turn you into a wet blanket. We're also embarrassed about seeming holier-than-thou.
But do we let it go too far? I worry that I do,for one. It seems to me that most of the exchanges I have, on the subject of my faith, are rather tongue-in-cheek. How seriously will you seem to take something if you are always laughing about it? Is the ultimate destiny of our immortal souls really something to kid about, all the time? And the fact that it is often someone else striking the jokey note doesn't really matter.
I try to remind myself that anyone professing the Christian faith really is an ambassador for Christ, and that this constrains us in ways we don't always like.
I was mulling over a dilemma along this line today. I am going to a dinner party on Saturday, and those present know that I usually recite a poem as a party piece. (Well, I can't sing, juggle or do magic tricks...)
Trying to fit the poem to the company, and knowing that it would be quite a jovial gathering, I was thinking of reciting Flanders and Swann's "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear". It's a wonderful display of wit and linguistic virtuosity.
However, it's also mildly bawdy-- the story of an old roué seeking to seduce a rather innocent young lady, and (as we learn only in the final line) succeeding.
I turned it about in my mind for a while. I dithered. But, in the end, I found myself thinking: if an Archbishop was reported to have recited such a lyric to a dinner party, would I be upset? Yes, I would. I would feel he should hold himself to a higher standard. And what if the other guests, knowing my beliefs, felt the same about me? What if they thought it mean I took my faith less seriously than they imagined, and made them, in turn, take it less seriously? It was at least a possibility.
In the end, I decided-- since it is so close to Christmas-- I would instead recite "The Burning Babe", the celebrated poem by the Jesuit priest and martyr, Robert Southwell. Ben Johnson said he would willingly have burnt many of his own works if he could have written this poem, and I see his point. Unlike the Flanders and Swann piece, it won't get any laughs. But sometimes laughs come at too high a price.
The Burning Babe, Robert Southwell (1595)
As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear
Who, scorchéd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed;
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defiléd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.