Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was once asked by a journalist how many ways there are to God. “As many as there are people” was his reply. Indeed although every person is struggling to reach the same final destination (whether they know it or not), every person also experiences their own combination of obstacles, blind corners, surprises, traps, failures, and successes in their struggle to arrive.
Karen Edmisten, author of Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith At The Finish Line, knows all about the uniqueness and complexity of each person’s path to Truth and Life. In her latest project, however, Edmisten has given us a snapshot of her own passage to faith. In her newest book, You Can Share The Faith: Reaching Out One Person At A Time, she not only artfully describes her passage through atheism to Catholicism, but adorns her story with wisdom that even the most seasoned evangelist can draw from.
A sincere sense of gratitude permeates You Can Share The Faith as she recalls people who helped plant the seeds of her own religious convictions, and helped her move along once she found herself treading the right path. It is clear that people and relationships – not minds or arguments – were foremost in her gradual conversion:
“Thanks to a beautiful, resplendent cloud of witnesses who modeled real Christianity for me, a new light was dawning.” (p. 24)
One of Edmisten’s core messages is that religion is “not a theory but a love affair” (in the words of the great wordsmith and Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton). Indeed. Such a reflection reminds me of a question once asked on a Catholic radio program: “Which is more important? To love – or to be loved?”
The answer of course is to be loved, for unless we are loved first we are nothing. Love brings us into being. Religion is our response – our thanksgiving or eucharisteo – to the life-giving love of God. Love is the anchor of faith, writes Edmisten. She quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
“…are we to doubt that the soul is loved by the Word first and with a greater love?”
You Can Share The Faith is not only reflective and intellectual, but also practical; in fact it might be said that the ready-to-use points she shares in regard to evangelization are tried, tested and true since her practical recommendations are based on (1) what worked to evangelize her and (2) what has worked for her in evangelizing others; and Karen is no rookie.
I really like her chapter on engaging the culture. Indeed our culture has lost the sense of, for example, a good and wise king worthy of reverence, and “magic” that works for the good. But in works like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles Of Narnia, for example, the experience of such a king and magic can be powerfully renewed; and that renewal of sense triggers a basic but deep human longing. For Edmisten, such stories were essential in baptizing her imagination and breaking through the walls of skepticism and doubt. She quotes St. John Paul II in his Letter To Artists:
“Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and the world.” (p.61)
As Edmisten points out, good art—and not necessarily explicitly religious art—can impact and convert the minds and imaginations of those whose hearts have been spiritually hardened. Books like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and The Hunger Games series provide an opportunity for a sober visualization of reality and can be catalysts for critical discussion regarding society and morality.
Edmisten rightly emphasizes the importance, relevance, and efficacy of evangelization targeting the imagination. Sometimes the most effective arguments are the ones wrapped in beauty (i.e. Middle Earth). Indeed sometimes the best argument is beauty itself (read Fr. Dubay’s The Evidential Power Of Beauty after you read You Can Share The Faith).
Indeed the imaginative approach to apologetics and evangelization is building steam in the Church’s quest to make disciples. Holly Ordway and Michael Ward of Houston Baptist University are pioneers in promoting imaginative/cultural apologetics at the level of academia.
Furthermore, this imaginative approach to ministry is precisely the avenue that Patrick Coffin and Dustin Kahia are taking with Immaculata Pictures as they respond to the call of St. John Paul II to engage the culture. The artistic approach taken by some of today’s emerging Catholic musicians such as Joe Zambon and Luke Spehar—like Coffin and Kahia in the film industry—are setting out to ply their craft in a form that will appeal to the secular and religious alike. Folks unwittingly get evangelized without realizing it when deeply Christian ideas are wrapped in seemingly secular packaging. This is front-line evangelization.
But this kind of “front-line” evangelization is not a new concept. Such masterpieces as Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings and Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and timeless films such as The Princess Bride and Saving Private Ryan have evangelized (and will continue to evangelize) the minds of generations; and it is clear that the genius of this creative approach to evangelization is what gets Edmisten excited.
Thus her chapter that deals with engaging the cultural imagination is both wise and resourceful. As she puts succinctly at the end of the chapter:
“Encounter the culture. It’s waiting for good news.” (p.70)
Those are wise words. Wisdom is often simple—and often something we’ve heard before. With this in mind, I appreciate Edmisten’s timeless advice to husbands and wives who would like to evangelize their dearest beloved but aren’t sure where to start:
“[M]y only advice sounds, as most advice does, lame and ineffective at first, but it’s all I’ve got. Pray.” (p. 85)
In a deeply personal chapter that follows, Edmisten lays out why “pray” is her word for the husband or wife who believes the conversion of their spouse is next to hopeless. Like a book-end, she ends this beautiful chapter with the same nugget of wisdom she began the chapter with:
“Pray. And be patient and loving. Pray.” (p.97)
In the final chapters of Edmisten’s book she really drives home the underlying theme of the whole book: love wins souls. Words matter because they are powerful; even powerful enough to condemn ourselves. It is often said today that one must be careful not to “win an argument and lose a soul”, drawing from the evangelical genius of the Venerable Fulton Sheen. This is true. But what I think is often absent is a thorough reflection on whose soul can be lost. Our words have not only the terrifying power to push another soul from the grace of Christ; through our words we also have the power to bury ourselves (see Matt 12:37). Edmisten emphasizes the power of words and the prudence involved with being an effective evangelist, but she also encourages courageous dialogue:
“[C]onversion is a process, not a moment, so we must keep talking.” (p.109)
Furthermore, reminds Edmisten, conversion is often a slow and trying process – and not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Thus even once a convert has arrived, the Church is on a pilgrimage towards perfection. The Household of God on earth is not perfect; and we shouldn’t expect it to be. We are all part of a work-in-progress; and we are that work in progress. These are the kinds of lessons you can expect to learn—and yet so much more—from this short but power-packed book written by someone who knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the fence.
You Can Share The Faith is, in one sense, Karen Edmisten’s conversion story, but masterfully interwoven with relevant stories from the lives of others and the wise lessons she has learned through her experience, observation, and deep reflection. In these pages you find a masterful balance of depth and simplicity, as well as conviction and humility, which is a great strength. This is the type of book you can hand to anyone. Edmisten ‘s learned wisdom bursts forth often in short, easy-to-digest phrases, while her story-telling ability proves to be a gift. This isn’t just another book about evangelization; it’s another good book about evangelization written by someone who understands what it is and how to do it.
Visit Karen’s blog here.