Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MY TRIP TO THE RELIGIOUS EDUCATION CONGRESS IN ANAHEIM

ARENA, ANAHEIM CONVENTION CENTER,
ANNUAL RELIGIOUS EDUCATION CONFERENCE
LION OF JUDAH, LAMB OF GOD

Last weekend I attended the annual, huge, Religious Education Congress in Anaheim (California). I’m such an introvert that even to drive to the Anaheim Convention Center and stand outside would have been a stretch. But I gamely made my way through the crowd and marched inside to meet a dear, kind editor friend who’d arranged several meetings with potential publishers.

The throng at this thing can top out at 45,000 and the hall was enormous. Booths and booths of candles, rosaries, vestments, and, mainly, mostly, books. Monastic wisdom, catechetical instruction, breviaries, Bibles. Books on prayer, healing, grace, vocation, forgiveness, action and contemplation.

The Congress’s other big draw is a roster of stellar, big-name lecturers. Fr. Robert Barron, founder-director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministrieswas giving a talk called “The YouTube Heresies” and next I made my way there.

Several years ago, Fr. Barron began posting a series of video lectures on YouTube. From the voluminous comments he receives, 90% are negative, and he laid out what he sees as the four great patterns of resistance/heresies:

1. GOD. There is deep confusion about what we mean by God. “How nice for you, that you have your little fairy god who gives you everything you want,” people will say.One way to get across that this is not our God, Fr. Barron observed, is to realize that God is not one being among many. God is not the highest being: God is the sheer act of “to be.” God is the ground where we are being created. God is to be “to be.”

2. THE BIBLE. Confusion abounds as to how we Catholics read the Bible. Apparently, people tend to think we read the Bible the way Muslims read the Koran: as if it were dictated, word-for-word, by God himself.

Fr. Barron’s point is that we don’t’ see the Bible as a book; we see the Bible as a library. In Genesis, we have a saga, in Samuel, a theological history, in the Song of Songs, erotic poetry. This isn’t “cherrypicking.” No-one reads poetry the same way they read journalism and we don’t either. Neither do we read, say, Hamlet, in a vacuum. We read it in light of the thousands of commentators, scholars, linguists, playwrights, and actors who have sifted through its meaning before us. Just so, we read the Bible within the long and complex interpretation that’s evolved through the centuries, in and through the Church.

3. RELIGION AND SCIENCE. Deep confusion is generated by the assumption that religion is antithetical to science. Descartes, observed Fr. Barron, gave the Western world the most followed orders in history: “If you’re smart, go toward science. Develop cures for the human body. Master nature. All knowledge can be reduced to the scientific and therefore any knowledge outside science is nonsense.”

The danger is becoming so impressed with science that philosophy, poetry, literature, drama—the more “truthful” forms of communication—are minimized and ignored.

Newton, Kepler, Pascal, Tyco Brahe were all formed by Catholic universities. Gregor Mendel, founder of modern genetics, was an Austrian scientist and monk. The Big Bang theory was developed by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest. In fact, religion and science are allies, resting on the mystical assumption that the world is intelligible.

4. RELIGION AND VIOLENCE. Here, I confess, I zoned out a bit as I am so cognizant of my own tendencies toward violence—to annihilate people who are in my way, of whom I’m jealous, who annoy me—that Old Testament violence hardly seems bloody enough. As Fr. Barron emphasized, however, the Bible must be read in its entirely through the interpretive lens of Jesus Christ. Who for all time established: We fight, yes. But as soldiers going as to war. Not with the puny earthly weapons of guns and bombs, but with the weapons of non-violence, charity and love.

Finally, he made the point that the people who respond with such intense negativity to his YouTube lectures, most of them young, could not possibly be spending so much time studying and dissecting and objecting to his message if they, like us, were not groping for meaning and truth. Keep on writing, he said. Because if our voices are extinguished, the young people coming up behind will have no-one to grapple with, no-one to respond to them, no-one with whom to work these questions out that we are all working out together and always will be.

Having received my own, thankfully to date small, share of hate mail, Fr. Barron's brilliant lecture and consoling words could scarcely have been more timely. They stayed with me all afternoon as I met with acquisition editors. “What do you write?” Unh…I guess you could call it everyday mysticism? My joy, my love, my struggles, food, birds, trees, the stars, my friends…” What are you looking for?” Books that sell…

Toward the end of the day, I was invited to participate in a Mass that another of the priests there held in his hotel room. We were twelve or so, standing, sitting on the bed, propped up on the floor. Very simple. Very short. The reading was Matthew 5: 20-26, which begins: “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.’”

The priest gave a very short homily. “The true follower of Christ,” he said, “is never defined by his or her stance on an issue. The test is never ‘I’m against abortion and therefore I’m a Christian.’ It’s never ‘I’m for peace and therefore I’m a Christian.’ The litmus test of a follower of Christ is whether you love your enemy and forgive the murderer.”

Love your enemy and forgive the murderer. All the books, all the rosaries, all the Masses, all the lectures: Love your enemy and forgive the murderer. So simple and so deeply, subversively radical. So simple and so infinitely, paradoxically complex. So simple and so seemingly impossible. The source of all the hunger, all the longing, all the desperate desire for connection that drives some of us to write, and that drives some to lash out at what we write.

This is what is ours to proclaim. This is the paradox we are called to live: the “lion of Judah” who turned out to be a wounded lamb.

And this is what Anaheim looks like. For miles and miles and miles.





Here are some of the pictures I took to calm my beleaguered soul:
HIBISCUS BEHIND MY CAR IN THE PARKING LOT OF
THE GREAT WESTERN RAFFLES
VERBENA, GAMELY STRUGGLING BY A GAS STATION/CONVENIENCE STORE
LONE LILY, SIDEWALK NEAR THE RED LION HOTEL
ROSEMARY, HARBOR BOULEVARD
NEAR ONE OF MANY GIGANTIC PARKING LOTS FOR DISNEYLAND
"WON'T YOU PLEASE TAKE ME HOME TO PAIR WITH A NICE LAMB ROAST?"
I THINK I HEARD IT WHISPERING...

3 comments:

  1. So very cool that you got to hear Fr. Barron! I really enjoy his videos and his books.

    The end of your post washed over me deeply. It's something I've been struggling a lot with lately, to love and to forgive those who've hurt me. So hard -- and yet, we are forgiven only to the degree that we ourselves forgive...

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  2. Hey Jason, thank you so much--the great thing is that Fr. Barron even made time for me afterward and we got to sit down and have a nice chat...he's not only SUPER smart, but funny, and obviously kind...hope all's well in Cambridge and wishing you a blessed Lent...

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  3. :) Thanks, Heather! A blessed Lent to you, also.

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