Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Athenians, Corinthians, and Mediaspeak

In sharing the Jesus-story is "mediaspeak" of any use? I was thinking about this last Sunday, when I heard Paul the Apostle determined to witness to the crucified Christ.

Some scholars believe that St. Paul had made a pastoral mistake in Athens when he quoted Greek thinkers and poets to get in good with the Athenians (cf. Acts 17:16ff.). They maintain that, learning from this experience, he later cut to the chase in his preaching to the Corinthians, determined to witness to nothing “except Jesus Christ and the fact that he was crucified (1Cor. 2:2).

Other scholars, though, don’t believe that by simply recalling Greek wisdom in Athens Paul was kissing up to the culture. His mistake, one that he obviously avoided at Corinth, was that he did so at the expense of the entire Gospel message. A careful reading of his sermon at the Areopagus, the rocky hill in Athens where open air discussions were held, reveals that he side-stepped the crucifixion, probably for fear of discrediting the Gospel among these sophisticates. He jumped from a reasoned explanation of belief in God, sailed through the judgment of the world, only to land on the resurrection of Christ. It apparently didn’t occur to him that if his listeners couldn’t conceive of Someone saving the world through a form of capital punishment meted out to slaves, they would never wrap their heads around resurrection from such a death! I imagine that as he trudged the 40 plus miles to Corinth after that fiasco, he repeatedly shook his head and muttered, “What was I thinking?”

Once among the sports fans of Corinth, Paul was not above couching his Gospel in a cultural context. This is clear from the way he referenced track meets and boxing as analogies for self-discipline and self-conquest in the life of the spirit (cf. 1Cor. 9:22-27). Even so, he made sure that he offered them something other than yet another path to self-transcendence. “Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified…” (1Cor. 1:22, 23).

So it is with every believer today, everyone committed to Gospel values, every witness to Christ and him crucified and risen. We live, work, and play in a world that seems irreconcilably at odds with the Gospel, with people who have no earthly idea of why we live the way we do. We want to share the life within us, but where to start? Even more, how do we help them ask their questions, or even know that they have questions?

Storytelling is probably one of the best ways to help them see themselves without making them run from us, screaming. Jesus was a Master at it. Media-makers are the storytellers of our day, but whose tale do they tell? All of us, the tellers and the told, can tease the story of the Crucified-Risen One out of the narratives we hear and see in advertising, movies, music, and more, if we become adept at understanding the media and their messages and pass those skills on to our children. The Daughters of St. Paul call it becoming media mindful. It’s an imperative from which no one—bishop, teen, parent, or civil servant—is exempted. Through our prayerful relationship with him who is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor. 1:24), grace infuses those attempts and gives them life.

Since 1936, with its first papal letter about communication, the Church has constantly described the media as gifts of God (Vigilanti cura, n. 4). It’s not uncommon for sincere people to disagree, as they are affronted by the consumerism and hedonism generated by modern media. About three years ago, a diocesan director of faith formation told me that a priest-friend of hers refuses to go on the Internet, because, as he says, he’s heard too many confessions. Now, one of the criticisms leveled against Sigmund Freud is that he studied only sick people, then tacked his conclusions onto everybody else in the world. More than ever before, then, the proliferation of means and messages, as well as the culture engendered by them, calls for discernment, not for trench warfare. As Eric Clapton sings, it’s all in the way that you use them.

In his encyclical, Mission of the Redeemer, John Paul II goes even farther than Eric does. He writes that it’s not enough to simply use the media for the Gospel. To enter as Christ’s disciples into the new Areopagus of communication, he points out that we need to integrate the Gospel into this new culture’s languages, techniques, and psychology (n. 37) taking them on, as it were, like the way God became human. (See also "Weekly PauLine" on the sidebar at right.)

This is the core message of media workshops and presentations that we Paulines and our collaborators give. It’s what we share with educators through the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. These FSP projects in North America may be operating on a shoestring budget, but they enrich the life and ministry of many. Media certification courses, Movie Bible Nights, film blogs and regular reviews in national and local periodicals, Catholic school book fairs, vocation discernment programs, parent-teacher conferences, and Pauline Books & Media publications are only some of the ways we work with others to Christianize the media generated culture with Gospel values.

“On the whole, I believe that there are seeds of the Gospel in a significant percentage of mainstream film releases. And if we approach films in anticipation of authentic lectio, they can create a spiritual experience—cinema divina indeed” (Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP, director, Pauline Center for Media Studies). 
“This is a course you can’t afford to miss!  Media needs to be embedded in our evangelization…Teachers know the merits of a lesson plan that instructs through multiple intelligences.  This course unlocks the tools that are embedded in media-rich lesson plans, tools that you can use immediately” (Deacon Bill, Fremont, CA).
“Thank you, Sister, for all your work helping us to connect with God's Beauty” (Randy Heffner).


  1. I love this post! I really enjoyed the observations about Paul - to me, the strongest evidence of the veracity of scripture is that it openly discusses the faults, sinfulness, and even just momentary stupidity of its greatest characters. It's nice to hear that Paul (or Peter or Moses or David or pretty much anyone else you can name) still didn't get it right every time regardless of how close they were to God.

  2. Not being right all the time reminds us of who's really God. Getting it right--when we do--is God's gift, and getting it right for all eternity is going to be the crowning gift of our life. Thank you for sharing your insights, bwterry!


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