Dear Catechists: Please Stop Talking About Emmaus

One of my favorite hashtags on Twitter is #UnpopularOpinion. People use this hashtag to tag their contrarian opinions about subjects both topical and mundane.

In that spirit, I would like to formally state that I think the “Road to Emmaus” story is overused in the field of catechesis.

That’s not to say that there aren’t important themes in the story or that it isn’t an important touchstone in understanding the relationship between Jesus Christ and his disciples. Rather, I think that given the current crisis of discipleship in the Church and the lack of a clear Christian worldview in our culture, it is not the most appropriate biblical story to draw on to understand the work of evangelization and catechesis.

People seem to forget that the disciples on the road to Emmaus are… well… disciples. They already had a strong, developed relationship with Jesus before the crucifixion. Their only problem was in misunderstanding the nature of the Resurrection. If, as studies show, so few in our parishes can truly be described as disciples, then the relevancy of this particular story to the current catechetical culture seems tenuous.

That, of course, begs the question: What story should we be talking about?

For your consideration, I offer this episode from the Acts of the Apostles:

And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can’dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter
or a lamb before its shearer is dumb,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken up from the earth.”

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Here we have a story that more clearly represents our present evangelizing and catechetical challenge: leading a person with limited exposure to the person and story of Jesus Christ into a relationship with him and his Church.

The eunuch had no lived relationship with Jesus. There isn’t even any indication that he knew his name! St. Phillip, beginning with the eunuch’s rudimentary knowledge of the prophet Isaiah, unfolds the Christian message, leading him to Jesus and entrance into his Body through baptism.

This is the same journey many people must make today. For some, as the eunuch, this may involve a journey that takes them through the RCIA and the Sacraments of Initiation. For others it may mean reconciliation and a return to the Church of their youth. Either way, we should not assume that a living, active relationship with Jesus Christ exists; it must be cultivated and encouraged. That is our challenge today and why this story should be close to the hearts of evangelists and catechists.

What other biblical stories do you think shed light on the work of the New Evangelization?

The Grumpy Old Catechist on Social Media Advice Articles

Here’s a little secret: I don’t read a whole lot of “tech advice” pieces on the internet, especially those about social media with titles like “Using Facebook in the Classroom” or “Five Tips for Maximizing Twitter Engagement”

“But wait a minute.” I hear you saying. “You write about tech and catechesis; surely you find these things interesting?”

First of all, don’t call me Shirley.

Secondly, while many of these articles have good intentions, I don’t find many with good practical advice. Many are too general to be of much help, with “advice” like “be sure to check your privacy settings” and “stay up-to-date as the technology changes.” Unless the article includes step-by-step instructions on Facebook privacy settings or concrete examples of places to go for current information, it’s just giving more work to educators and catechists who already find social media and technology overwhelming and off-putting.

See, most of these articles are written by techies who don’t know how to write for non-techies. They don’t understand non-techies’ fears and trepidation about technology, so they breeze past it. But if we want the “average” teacher or catechist to adopt these amazing new technologies we have to take their fears seriously, address them, and show them how to mitigate the worst-case scenarioes that go through their heads every time we use the words “computer,” “Facebook,” and “privacy controls.”

So this is my plea: if you write about technology and pedagogy, take time every once in a while to address a real concern and move past platitudes to give concrete examples and instructions. I think it will go a long way towards helping everyone else see the great potential we do in technology.

Photo by e-magic/flickrCC

The Grumpy Old Catechist on E-Books

For all my love of technology, I’m still a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to e-books. I’m simply not convinced that the convenience of being able to carry around a library in your backpack offsets what I see as some very real and core problems with the technology.

As I’ve refined my thoughts on the subject I continue to have two problems with e-books: one philosophical, one technological.

My philosophical problem stems from the fact that, as highly editable constructs, e-books enable the kind of post-publication tinkering that now plagues movie-making. Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien or Aldous Huxley had been able to go back and “re-edit” their greatest works (ala George Lucas and the Star Wars special editions) and instantly propagate those changes to every copy in the world.  Or imagine if others could make those changes on behalf of authors long dead, ala the colorization of black and white films that was popular not so long ago. That’s the type of skulduggery that electronic publishing makes possible.

Even more ominously, imagine if a special interest group or government action convinced a publisher to make edits to a text. It’s not too hard to imagine edits made to such traditionally controversial texts such as Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye. If all that is available are electronic texts, who will preserve the original words of the authors? Who will be able to oppose such censorship when it is built into the underlying technology itself?

(And if you think it isn’t possible, remember that Amazon was able to pull copies of  1984  from Kindles not so long ago; it’s a short step to selectively editing copies on the same devices.)

On the technological end, the science fiction nut in me just keeps picturing a post-apocalyptic world in which access to technology is limited and only those people in possession of real physical books will have access to the world’s knowledge. Good examples of what I’m talking about are A Canticle for Leibowitz, the underrated The Book of Eli, or the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”:

In a modern retelling, we can well imagine Burgess Meredith dropping his iPad and unable to access all the books he ever wanted to read.

Of course, part of me is playing the curmudgeon. Point in fact, I think e-books are well suited for students, for whom lugging around backpacks filled with heavy textbooks poses real logistical and, potentially, health problems. And I think e-books may be an ideal solution for smaller niche publications which are not economically feasible under a print economy. But even then I think a print-on-demand solution should be offered, so that a physical, non-editable copy can be kept for posterity. Print is not dead, no matter how much our technological overlords may wish it to be so, and physical books still represent a lasting way to preserve what we hope to pass on to future generations.