What My Little Ponies Can Teach Us About the New Evangelization

The third season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic just made it on to Netflix. My 5-year old daughter loves the show and roped me into watching the opening two-part episode with her. (Admittedly she didn’t have to press hard; the show is actually pretty good and includes plenty of funny Easter eggs for adults.)

The first part of the episode features the return of a long-lost kingdom of crystal ponies. Twilight Sparkle (the main character, pictured above) and her friends are sent to investigate and find that all the ponies in the kingdom are suffering from a form of selective amnesia. Research in the library reveals that their spirits can be lifted (and the kingdom protected from the evil King Sombra) by holding the annual Crystal Fair. Twilight and friends then sing a song about saving the ponies by re-introducing them to their history:

It occurred to me that this is a useful metaphor for understanding the work of the New Evangelization.

Our post-modern culture has forgotten it’s roots and cut itself off from any interest in or embrace of the past, especially anything smacking of the supernatural or spiritual. The radical relativism that pervades the culture has replaced truth and beauty with a tepid “truthiness” and utilitarianism; Christianity has been replaced with a therapeutic moral deism that is more concerned with its own feelings and desires than a spirituality rooted in an objective reality. (Science fiction author John C. Wright, in a recent blog post, identifies the First World War as the major precipitating factor of this cultural amnesia, which seems about right to me.)

The work of the New Evangelization, then, is to re-introduce (or, to use Pope Benedict’s language, re-propose) Jesus Christ and Christianity to a culture that has largely forgotten him and his message.

It is important to note that this re-introduction has a strong historical character. The Judeo-Christian tradition (including Islam), unlike Hiduism, Buddhism, or tribal religions, is deeply rooted in historical events, places, and figures. This is why St. Luke situates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in this way:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. (Luke 3:1-2)

This is a far cry from “once upon a time!” Luke locates the call of John the Baptist in a very specific time and place. He is not discussing some abstraction outside of time such as the Greek gods or Native American creation stories, but real people who have left a historical record outside of Sacred Scripture. History, then, is a vital component of our understanding of the faith. Knowing how the story of the Church has unfolded over time — how faith in Jesus Christ was expressed in a variety of places and historical epochs — can be a source of great strength and consolation.

Of course, simply talking about it won’t do much good. Twilight Sparkle and her friends didn’t just lecture the crystal ponies about what they discovered in books; they actually held the Crystal Fair! Likewise, we must help people to make connections with history by inviting them to participate in the life of the Church. This may mean helping people to participate in devotions that were meaningful to them when they were young; it may mean introducing them to new practices. Regardless we must help them reignite the spark of faith in their lives. It is participating in the life of faith — especially in the Eucharist — that connects us to the great cloud of witnesses and raises our spirits to God.

If part of the problem of modern culture is a fundamental ignorance of and disdain for our history — grounded, as it is, in a Christian cultural context — then talking about and immersing ourselves in that history must be a part of the New Evangelization. We can, in fact, save the world with our history.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Photo Credit: Nuwandalice via Compfight cc

What the Worst Video Game Ever Can Teach Us About Evangelization

If you’ve never heard the story of the Atari 2600 game E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, I’ll let the Wikipedia summary fill you in:

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial  (also referred to simply as  E.T.) is a notorious 1982  adventurevideo game  developed and published by  Atari, Inc.  for the  Atari 2600video game console. It is based on the  film of the same name, and was designed by  Howard Scott Warshaw. The objective of the game is to guide the eponymous character through various screens to collect three pieces of an interplanetary telephone that will allow him to contact his home planet.

Warshaw intended the game to be an innovative adaptation of the film, and Atari thought it would achieve high sales figures based on its connection with the film, which was extremely popular throughout the world. Negotiations to secure the rights to make the game ended in late July 1982, giving Warshaw only five weeks to develop the game in time for the 1982  Christmas season. The result is often cited as one of the  worst video games released  and was one of thebiggest commercial failures in video gaming history.

E.T.  is frequently cited as a contributing factor to Atari’s massive financial losses during 1983 and 1984. As a result of overproduction and returns, millions of unsold cartridges  were buried  in an  Alamogordo, New Mexico  landfill. The game’s commercial failure and resulting effects on Atari are frequently cited as a contributing factor to the  video game industry crash of 1983.

What does this have to do with evangelization?

First, it tells us to take our time and get things right. The fact that Warshaw had only five weeks to create the game probably doomed it from the start. Even in 1982 it took time to develop and program a game.

Similarly, we need to take our time and do evangelization right. There are no short cuts when it comes to evangelization — no canned program or magic wand that will do the work for us. Evangelization means developing relationships, engaging in conversation, and walking with people on their spiritual journey. This doesn’t happen overnight. (Or in five weeks!) There’s a reason the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says that preparation to receive the Sacraments of Initiation is a lengthy process that can take years. We do ourselves and those we evangelize a disservice when we think that conversion happens at the end of a five week “welcome back” program.

Second, it should serve as a warning against giving people a poor version of what they want. E.T.  was  the hottest property in 1982. The movie opened to critical acclaim, broke all sorts of box office records, and  E.T. merchandise was flying off the shelves. A video game based on the film should have been a no-brainer.  Instead, gamers were given a shoddy product that didn’t meet their expectations.

Unfortunately this often happens when we create programs, products, and other “stuff” within the Church.  Because  we can never put the resources and production quality into something that a large corporation can, “religiousy” stuff usually pales in comparison. We can’t assume that just because we have the Gospel that we can skimp on making our books, videos, and other media compelling and winsome. As Christ reminded the apostles, we must be “wise as serpents”; in the modern world this means paying attention to how people will react to the message based on the form it takes. Slapping E.T. on a cheaply produced video game wasn’t enough in 1982; that’s a lesson we should remember.

Original photo by See El Photo / flickrCC

Technology and Prayer: The Angelus Bell

A few months ago I decided to add a new element to my prayer routine: the daily Angelus. Unfortunately I had a problem in that my schedule varies greatly from day to day, so making a habit of praying at noon is difficult.

The solution: my cell phone.

I created a new alarm on my phone set to go off at noon every day. That could have been enough, but it didn’t seem very “churchy.” Knowing that in the past churches would ring their bells to signal the praying of the Angelus I decided to take things a step further. I did a search for “church bells mp3”, downloaded the sound of a church bell ringing, and set that sound as the alarm tone. The result: at noon every day my “Angelus bell” sounds from my phone, signaling me to take a few moments for prayer!

This system has worked very well and, if you’re like me and carry your phone almost everywhere, it can be a simple way to incorporate a little more prayer in your day!

What the Marvel Cinematic Universe Can Teach Us About Parish Ministry

Last week on Twitter I had a short conversation with Marc Cardaronella about the new Avenger’s movie. We both agreed that it’s a great flick and continues Marvel’s string of strong superhero outings.

What I’m most impressed by, however, is how well The Avengers brings together the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the non-geeks out there, for several years Marvel has been building a complete universe across multiple movies. These films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man II, Thor, and Captain America) exist in the same continuity — they share characters and settings, and events in one movie affect events in the next movie. The MCU comes to a head in The Avengers, which brings together the main characters from all the movies for one action-packed spectacle.

But that spectacle wouldn’t be as spectacular if the characters and events hadn’t already been set up before in the other movies. By coordinating the movies and taking the time to slowly build up the characters, The Avengers transcends the sum of its parts and becomes something more.

What’s That Got to Do With Parishes?

Parish ministries don’t exist in a vacuum. They share volunteers and participants, use common spaces and are (ideally) centered on the Eucharist. Parish ministries overlap and rub shoulders in a variety of ways. So why do we so often treat them as self-contained entities?

Like the MCU movies we should view parish ministries as part of a continuum — what we do in, say, a Bible study group should inform and be informed by how we train lectors. How we conduct funeral liturgies should jive with what we present in baptismal prep. Parishioners should be able to recognize the strands and threads that run through parish programs, helping them to draw their own connections and insights into their experience of the faith.

This approach recognizes the systematic nature of our faith: all that has been revealed by God has integrity. It does not self-contradict. There are common threads that run through Catholic teaching: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the centrality of the person of Christ. These threads should be explicit and identifiable in how our parishes are run and in what they teach.

Of course this means that we have to plan our ministries, rather than offering them as one-shot programs, and help people to see the connections between different aspects of the faith. This means more work, but will bear more fruit in the end.

Do your parish ministries exist in a continuity, or are they isolated units? What common vision underlies the work your parish does?

Geek Sidebar: Yes, I know the picture above is inaccurate insofar as Wolverine and Spider-Man aren’t part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the picture was just too great to pass up.

Photo by Dunechaser/flickrCC

Catechesis: Not Just for Theology Geeks

Marc Cardaronella has written a great response to my recent post on adult faith formation. Marc gets to the heart of the problem with this passage:

I  think a lot of catechetical programming is geared toward the theology geeks and old regulars. It centers on teaching doctrines or other aspects of the faith. But to draw in a wider audience, it needs to tell  people how to solve real problems.

I’m not saying that catechesis isn’t important (except if it’s boring). I’m saying that often it’s not perceived as important by the average person in the parish. That’s because it’s  not filling a need…

People are busy. If they don’t see a real value in your class, they won’t go. It doesn’t matter if it’s free. The currency they’re spending is time. They only have so much of it, and if you’re not giving them enough value, they’re not going to spend their time on you.

Here’s one example of what we’re talking about:

Imagine you’re looking over a list of upcoming catechetical offerings and trying to decide which to attend. Which course title sounds more appealing?

  • Ending World Hunger, Poverty, and War with the Power of Faith
  • Catholic Social Doctrine

Two courses that could have the exact same content — yet the first will be better attended because it promises to address real world problems that people encounter every day. The second one? The average person in the pew doesn’t even know what “Social Doctrine” is, let alone how it will help them.

People write what they know, and unfortunately many catechetical programs are written by theology geeks (I want that on my business card!) rather than people who are really interested in how the faith can work concretely in people’s lives to address their needs and questions.

If we expect people to give up something to attend our catechetical programs — and Marc is absolutely correct that, in today’s hectic world, time is a precious currency — than we need to demonstrate how our programs will benefit them. This isn’t something we can demonstrate during their time in our programs. It has to be part of the way we market catechesis and our programs.

If we want people to come, we have to demonstrate that it will be worth their while.

Image by Druid Labs/FlickrCC