‘They Fought Like Warrior-Poets’ – What Moves Culture?

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Mankind, by its very nature and manifested across time immemorial, has always lived in the context of ‘the group.’ New York Times columnist David Brooks even wrote a book boldly entitled The Social Animal – rephrasing Aristotle’s age-old definition of humans as ‘rational animals’ – in which he establishes the central characteristic of humans as their communal nature. Moreover, Brené Brown, a researcher at University of Houston School of Social Work and lights-out TED speaker has claimed that a summation of her decades of research shows two fundamental traits of human beings: “connection and belonging is why we are here” (pg. 68, Brené Brown, Daring Greatly). That really is a quirky, awe-inspiring reality. We are all individually and completely ourselves, but (avoiding all Jerry McGuire references) as individuals, we aren’t complete in and of ourselves. We need others. Hence, community is in our blood.

Now, arising out of these communities in which humans unavoidably find themselves is something called ‘culture.’ Equally as obvious and confounding as this communal nature of man is this term ‘culture.’ Everyone knows culture exists and that it is important, but we come up short when trying to define it. What is culture, anyway?

It isn’t just something reserved for stuffy museums and archipelagos of highly lauded ‘great works.’ It is not something people participate in only every once in a while when they see an opera, look at a Titian gallery or otherwise seek out some activity when they feel like ‘getting some culture.’ No, culture is far more expansive than that, formed from every corner of a building and every act of a citizen. It is “the way we do things around here” (pg. 174, Brené Brown, ibid.). It is the way of life of a people. It is not just what we do sometimes. Culture is the waters in which we are unavoidably swimming and the juices in which we are stewing. It is the spirit and soul of a communal body of people that exhibits its personality, life and health.

But, notice the root word of ‘culture’ – cultus, which is Latin for worship. Where is the natural spring, the birth canal, the inescapable origin, the ‘root’ for this ‘way of life’ of any people? Ultimately, it germinates from what that people worships. That is to say, culture springs forth from what that people loves and gives its collective heart to.

This is such a crucial point. This is why culture always comes back to how a community of people answers certain questions: What is ultimately significant and meaningful in life? What is true about the world and the cosmos? Who is man? What is his place and role in the world? What is the purpose in living? And, perhaps most poignantly, culture stems from and points to three questions achingly explored in Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World: Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going?

All of these questions show culture to be more foundational than just what kinds of foods we eat and how we dress. Rather, it cuts straight to the heart of a people, finding its footing in how they answer Jesus’ perennial question:

“What do you seek?” (John 1:38)

In such a context, it doesn’t take an especially exacting gaze to see that our culture is not such a healthy one. It is one thing for a people to take their best stab at answering the questions above and let the cultural chips fall where they may. But, it something different entirely to do what our society in the West now does: not answer the questions at all.

Look at the above list of questions again… does our society give any whiff of an answer to them at all? How can that be? How is that approach to life an honest response to what are certainly the deepest, most rudimentary questions leaping up from the flames within our chests? How healthy can a culture be (and, more importantly, the people who give birth to such a culture) if it stands blind, deaf, dumb and mute, cutting out its own heart? This is why some have argued that we have no culture left.

What is the remedy? What can give life to what is dead? What can turn darkness into light? One (and only one) thing:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)

Each and every human being (and, by extension, each and every society) needs the ‘newness of life’ that only Jesus can give. It is to Him that we must come with empty hands and to Him that we must give everything. He is the only one who has the power to change societies and their attendant cultures. Life comes from no other source than God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the definition of foolishness (and Einstein concept of insanity) to dig into any other well. Therefore, if we wish to play a part in healing the wounds or solving the problems around us, we must, as St. Therese once said, “hide [ourselves] in the wounds of Christ,” so that, through us He may redeem, transform and give life.

And this is the climatic point of the Christian life: if we are truly pierced and converted by the Gospel, then we will spray out over the battle-contested garden of the world as warrior-poets of the Gospel – firmly girded with trust and hope in our Father and ever ready to die for Him in our combat against evil.

We follow Him on His mission to save people from destruction and death (as we ourselves have been saved.) In this way it is absolutely our mission (albeit, indirectly) to build a healthy culture, because it is our mission to let the light of Christ change the way people see and live in the world – to unleash Christ to transfigure hearts.

This is what it means to be a disciple. Consequently, it is only this kind of sold-out abandonment to the Christ-centered Gospel that suffices for restoring a putrefied and entombed culture like ours. When disciples truly live together in a community of Gospel-oriented mission, then societies flourish and fluoresce with truth, unity, justice, beauty, goodness and peace.

Brothers and sisters, this is what we are called to by Him who stands at the ready to pour out His grace and power into the hearts of all men. How can we not respond?

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Be Not Afraid

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The word “virtue” can be one of those oft-repeated non-words that we digest as dull and lifeless. This reaction is completely understandable – the familiar becomes banal. But it is good to shake ourselves out of this and ask the Spirit to refresh and renew our vision to see things as they really are. The Christian concept of virtue simply consists of a person being all that it is possible for him or her to be (the realization of the human capacity for being). They are gifts that bud from the grace of God, which surge through the disciple and manifest him or her as a radiant, free, happy, inexplicably wondrous child of God.

One of these gifts that is seldom appreciated for its impact in our lives is courage. We don’t carry swords, fight in battles, lodge on the frontiers or live harvest-to-harvest anymore – we work on computers, drive in cars, store our food in Tupperware and have temperature-controlled houses. So why do we need courage?

“Do not be afraid” is the most repeated phrase in the Bible. In fact, it is repeated 365 times – one for each day. Isn’t that somewhat shocking? It’s not variations of “I love you” or “Come to me all who labor”, but “Do not be afraid”. That must mean two important things:  1) God is telling us that fear will be a huge part of our lives and, if you don’t think it is, you are kidding yourself and 2) He can do something about it (why would He tell us to rise above fear unless He could give us the power to do it?).

We need to admit that fear is a very real part of our lives. Every day we are met with situations and decisions that grip us by the throat – some lightly, some tightly – and make us want to shrink away, to run. Think of the Dark Island from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. How often does a “great dark mountain rising out of the sea” meet us on our life’s voyage, an “utter blackness as if they had come to the edge of moonless and starless night”, “not land at all, not even, in an ordinary sense, a mist… [but] Darkness”?

And, though they vary in severity, hue and gravity, this fear-inducing darkness meets us every day. Fear really is one of the biggest problems in our lives. Michael O’Brien – one of today’s best fiction writers, who happens to be Catholic as well – was recently asked what he learned from times of struggle, hopelessness and discouragement. His response:

I saw that fear – not just sin, but fear – blocks out the actions of God. It can…  What have I learned? After sin, fear is my greatest enemy. 

Sin is our worst enemy: evil flooding into our very selves. But after that, nothing is more hellish and can keep us from all the good the Lord has for us than fear – the fumes of that flood.

If fear is one of our biggest problems, then it makes sense that courage is one of the biggest “answers” in our lives. St. Teresa of Avila goes so far as to mark courage as perhaps the most important characteristic one can have when on the “spiritual journey” that is the life of a disciple. Why? Because fear won’t lead us home. Fear makes us shrink and deflate; it makes us “turn tail” as most of the members of the Dawn Treader would have done. But courage literally “gives heart” so that we may attain and achieve what is good for us and our brothers and sisters. It frees us to not be steered by our fears, but by our internal compass, by Truth, by God Himself. It liberates us to plow forth on the mission – our mission – given to us by the King.

We need not even be bogged down by the fact that there is fear in our lives. We are not called to be fear-less. We are called to be courageous – willing to go on in the face of fear.  Fear will come (doesn’t God allude to that by repeating a phrase 365 times in the Bible?) and when it does may we embody Reepicheep, saying,

This is a very great adventure, and no danger seems to me so great as that of knowing when I get back to Narnia that I left a mystery behind me though fear.

So how do we acquire courage? By asking for a gift. We don’t have to rise above fear strictly on by our own moxie and savvy. Of course grace isn’t magic (it requires our co-operation) but it is, first and foremost, from the Father. We can’t defeat darkness. We can’t, of our own accord, flick the fears off our back and shimmy on up the mountain. But, our Father, who confidently stands as Lord over all, has no problem with turning our darkness into light. Let’s rejoice that, with God dwelling in us, we are empowered to rise above all evil. Alleluia!

Let us beg our Father to pour out on us this gift of courage, which, like Reepicheep, can often come in a small package, but can nonetheless steer the ship straight – through choppy, dark waters to Aslan’s country.