LONDON, ONTARIO – Watching the Canadian film Whale Music at the old New Yorker Cinema many moons ago, I had one of those sobering moments of crystallization when I suddenly recognized the depth of contempt our society harbours for Christians who won’t shut up about their faith. Adapted from Paul Quarrington’s comic novel and featuring a killer soundtrack by The Rheostatics, Whale Music was loosely inspired by the creative, psychological and marital travails of The Beach Boys’ resident genius, Brian Wilson.
Over the course of that film we are introduced to a gouging manager and some shifty corporate lawyers and record company executives who are all out to exploit our psychologically fragile hero in any way that will generate a few quick bucks. We see his embittered and adulterous ex-wife who's trying to get him committed and watch his old band-mates and a sampling of fans who couldn’t give a toss about his artistic development and just want him to keep cranking out highly profitable songs about hot rods and surfing like he used to before he broke down in self-loathing disgust for employing his gifts to such unworthy ends.
Amidst this gallery of chisellers and rogues there was only one character so utterly offensive that a large portion of the audience groaned out loud when he appeared onscreen; a mousy, born again Christian who leans a little too closely into our hero’s personal space to inquire if he’s ever considered accepting Jesus Christ as his personal saviour. I must admit I marveled that robbers, cheaters, maligners and cultural Philistines could be quietly tolerated and even enjoyed as acceptably villainous movie types but this one clod, tactlessly posing a question about God, detonated a hissy fit in the audience at large.
I recalled that movie-going experience last week when I saw so many people expressing an unseemly pleasure that Matthew Carapella and Steven Ravbar - that pair of proselytizing not-quite-gentlemen who used to hold down the southeast corner of Dundas and Richmond - were in hot water with the police for obnoxiously disrupting Sunday services at a couple of London churches. I admit that I always had mixed feelings about those guys. I regretted their use of a microphone and amplifier for their curbside preaching. Like that rhythmically challenged conga player who always set up kitty-corner from their usual stand, Carapella and Ravbar manifested a sort of aural assault on passersby. I also wished their usual discourse had been a little more elevated and better informed. I never found anything very engaging in the way these chaps droned on and wasn’t inclined to listen to them for any length of time nor challenge them in debate. And, most grievously (though I never witnessed it myself) I heard numerous reports that they could be positively abusive to women whose mode of dress didn’t meet their standards of modesty and decorum.
So why were my feelings mixed, you might wonder? What was there to like about these chaps? I guess I saw them as flawed exemplars of a tradition I hold in high regard as one of the foundational ideals of Judeo-Christian culture. I’m sorry that this pair turned out to be such overbearing bullies in practice because, in principle, I admire the courage and forthrightness of anyone who’ll stand up in a public setting and freely, respectfully talk about what he finds most meaningful in life.
I mean, how great is it, to head downtown because you need a pair of shoelaces or a quarter pound of mushrooms and instead you get caught up in a recondite discussion about the necessary conditions for salvific redemption? I want to live in that kind of world, where different kinds of people are free to reflect on existential questions and then share their findings with anyone who happens to be passing by and cares to hear them out. Though he rarely ventured into religion per se, on his best days, the late Roy McDonald used to provide a similar sort of service. Whenever it’s done at all artfully or well – and even if I’m not ultimately won over to a promulgated view – I feel ennobled and enlarged by such oratorical encounters; happy to be part of that broader human family which can take the time and make the effort to exchange worthwhile insights in this way.
When I was a kid, there were a few grizzled proselytisers who would work their way into the quieter, residential neighbourhoods on Sunday afternoons and I happily attended many such lectures for as long as these curbside preachers cared to hold forth. An occasional lapse in personal hygiene or a carefully cultivated eccentricity (I remember one fellow whose open Bible was held aloft by fingers with nails that had grown so long they were starting to curl like Howard Hughes’) suggested that the zeal these men exuded might also straddle a kind of madness. Already I knew that most adults didn’t live at such an exalted pitch of enthusiasm (in some ways, it was a kid’s-level pitch) and I was intrigued by anyone who found ways to still throw off such sparks of excitement in later life.
On my 21st birthday, my girlfriend’s older sister brought along a luxuriantly bearded, itinerant Jesus freak to the dinner party at my parents’ house. Perhaps in his mid-20s, this man walked all over Ontario in an annual circuit of stops, preaching and proclaiming wherever he went in the company of a goat that was his daily source of milk. His conversation and stories were fascinating and, again, I apprehended what a truly revolutionary thing the faith could be if it inspired a follower to live such a physically demanding and socially unorthodox life. I mean, when it came to casting your fate to the winds, this guy made Mick Jagger look like an insurance adjuster. My mother was significantly less charmed by this guest however as he tethered his companion to a backyard tree during dinner, within easy chomping distance of her best flowerbed.
Whether they’re offering me a fleet of hard-bristle brushes or a front row seat at the rapture and second coming of Christ, I’ve always been a soft touch for peddlers and prophets of every stripe. It became a bit of a joke during the first decade of our marriage that whenever my wife checked in for another tour of duty in the maternity ward, she’d come home with a new bawling babe in arms to find the dining room table covered with copies of The Watchtower and Awake, The Book of Mormon and miscellaneous brochures advertising once-in-a-lifetime offers on The Encyclopedia Britannica, vinyl siding, replacement windows, lawn re-seeding and fitness club memberships. It was as if the peddling community had been watching the house and descended en masse when word went forth that the coast was clear.
Though I joined the Catholic Church in 1984, I received a trio of proselytizing Mormons into my home for four weekly sessions of dialogue as recently as December of 1998. I told them up front that I was a radiantly happy Dogan with no intention of converting and they said that was cool; they just wanted to come over and talk and we’d all learn something about how our different churches operated. Each of our meetings opened with acapella carols and hymns. They gradually improved their harmonies but their first rendition of Angels We Have Heard on High was so sour it brought tears to my eyes. Or was that just a reflection of how moved I was by the commitment of these young American 20-somethings who were serving their church’s mandatory one-year posting in the mission field? Each of them had raised his own money to see him through the year and was clearly having a life-shaping adventure, getting out to see the world in the company of like-minded compatriots.
Catholics can be a little smug about the globe-straddling scope of our ecclesial operations but as Christian churches go, we don’t provide our laity with much opportunity to act as agents of religious outreach themselves. There used to be such a vehicle for Catholics. The Catholic Evidence Guild was formally established in England in 1918, spread to the United States in the 30s, and then, like so much else in Catholic culture, quietly evaporated in the discombobulating wake of the Second Vatican Council. The Evidence Guild was one more expression of the great Catholic revival in Britain at the turn of the last century.
Its mission was to train and prepare Catholic laity for outdoor preaching and lecturing. It was directly through their work for the Guild that Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward first met and quickly decided to marry. And it was definitely in the spirit of the Guild, that this pair of gifted speakers and writers founded and operated the greatest English-language Catholic publishing house of the 20th century, Sheed & Ward; the home, among many others, of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson. Caryll Houselander and Frank and Maisie themselves.
I have a copy of the fourth edition of the 360 page guidebook, Catholic Evidence Training Outlines which Frank and Maisie compiled and published under the family imprint. I treasure it as an artifact from a vanished era when the facilities and the opportunities were there for laymen to thoroughly steep themselves in doctrine and then take that out and make the best case they could in the public square. Here are some guidelines lifted from a chapter on ‘The Mental Outlook of a Catholic Street Corner Apologist’:
“We are servants of the crowd and must therefore give our very best. This means individual preparation for each lecture. Speaking unprepared becomes very easy after a time but it is a temptation to be resisted fiercely. A poor speaker doing his best is quite literally much better than a brilliant speaker doing his second best. We must try to like the crowd – even those members of it who most obviously do not like us. We must not be resentful if they find us dull and uninteresting. We probably are. Nor must we feel a sense of grievance if they misbehave. They did not invite us to come and talk to them.
“Sarcasm is always a grave offense. The speaker must never hurt a questioner’s feelings. Never sneer. Never raise a laugh at someone’s expense. If a joke is made at your expense, do not be annoyed. If it is a good joke, enjoy it . . . Above all never pretend to know what one does not know . . . Do not resent criticism. You are not expected to like it, but there is no progress without it. The work must have a background of prayer. The Guildsman should aim at spending as much time before the Blessed Sacrament as he spends on the outdoor platform.”
I would commend this generous-hearted book to Messrs Carapella and Ravbar if they emerge from their current legal difficulties with a will to continue preaching. If Christian proselytizing is now scorned and resented like never before, it might be because so much of it is done so shabbily and meanly; without affection or respect for those fellow creatures of God you are supposedly trying to inform and persuade. Christians are not called to be obnoxious but we are called to make disciples every chance we get. And we can proudly take our place in a long and exalted tradition if we enlist some consideration and grace when defending our faith and endeavoring to display its beauties and truths to unbelievers and skeptics.
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