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Chesterton, New Evangelization, and Cheese

April 4, AD2013 4 Comments

\"Edmund

The New Evangelization has been called many things, but cheesy is not one of them, and this is a shame. If the New Evangelization is to accomplish the task of re-evangelizing the cultures and communities of today, then the New Evangelization should be more like good cheese.\"\"

“In each inn the cheese was good; and in each inn it was different.”

G.K. Chesterton wrote some interesting things about cheese after a trip giving lectures around England.  During his travels he lunched in several roadside inns across England that offered nothing but bread and cheese.  He found in these cheeses a quality he describes as “the very soul of song.”

Chesterton saw in the cheeses two things:

1)  Each cheese was local and therefore diverse, taking on the flavor of the surrounding culture.

The “noble” cheese of Wensleydale was a different happy expression of cheese than that of the cheese of Cheshire, or the cheese in Yorkshire, or the cheese in any of the inns.  Chesterton believes that universal truths are best expressed through customs and civilizations when they are living, varying, and diverse.  The cheese becomes exquisite because it communicates truth and beauty in a way that is in touch with reality and its local surroundings.  The divine and universal idea of cheese takes on the human nature of the town and the people that labored to lovingly produce the cheese.

“Bad customs are universal and rigid, like modern militarism. Good customs are universal and varied, like native chivalry and self-defence… But a good civilization spreads over us freely like a tree, varying and yielding because it is alive. A bad civilization stands up and sticks out above us like an umbrella – artificial, mathematical in shape; not merely universal, but uniform.”

2)  Each cheese was the object of a loving art, and therefore was very high quality.

\”Now, it is just here that true poetic civilization differs from that paltry and mechanical civilization that holds us all in bondage.\”  Chesterton noticed that industrial cheese found in a large city, much like soap that is mass produced and sent all around the world, did not have the same eclectic and local flavors of the cheese he encountered at the inns and was not very good either.

Not only did the cheeses of the city lack an exquisite taste, but the people that served the city cheese took no pride nor showed any reverence toward their cheese. Chesterton laments about a waiter that served him cheese on what was basically a cracker.  After dining on the magnificent cheese of the inns served with what most likely was hearty breads, Chesterton was more than a little upset to get a bland cheese on a lifeless cracker.

“I addressed the waiter in warm and moving terms… I asked him if, when he said his prayers, he was so supercilious as to pray for his daily biscuits. He gave me generally to understand that he was only obeying a custom of Modern Society. I have therefore resolved to raise my voice, not against the waiter, but against Modern Society, for this huge and unparalleled modern wrong.”

Industrialized Ministry

For too long we have been searching for an answer to the task of evangelization that is more like a microwave dinner than well made cheese.  We want to take it out of the box, plug it into the parish, let it run, and reap the rewards of a vibrant ministry.  We want a one-size-fits-all answer to evangelization that requires little thinking, no volunteers, and little effort.

There is a place for these resources, and they are a gift to the Church, but they should not be used as crutches or be the primary thrust of a parish\’s evangelization efforts.

Good Old New Evangelization Cheese

1.) Evangelization should be local and therefore diverse, taking on the flavor of the surrounding culture.

Christ was one man, and yet he finds infinitely varied and true expressions in the lives of the Saints. From the poor St. Francis to the richer St. Thomas Moore.  From the silent and anonymous Benedictines hidden from the world in monasteries, to the preaching Domincans.

People want to encounter a living and active faith, not one that is recorded on dvd\’s and mass produced somewhere in Spain and shipped all over the world.  These resources are great to supplement a parish, but they should not be the sole expression of a living and evangelizing culture of a parish.

We need to make each of our Churches a Saint.  Our parish community should become a unique expression of Jesus Christ lived out in a life-giving and profoundly beautiful way.  Our individual parishes need to engage and transform the surrounding culture into something sacred, something worth attracting the attention of modern man who is so jaded by industrialized, commercialized, and mass produced ideas.

Where have all the local celebrations and popular devotions gone?  Most parishes are named after a Saint, but that is as far as the Saint\’s influence goes.  Where is the loving expression of unique devotion?  We have lost our culture, we have begun to mass produce our cheese. Where is the St. Francis Parish making fools for Christ?  Where is St. Joseph\’s Parish devoted to producing holy fathers?  Where is St. Stephen\’s Parish celebrating martyrs all year long and lighting a fire of zeal in its parishoners who would rather be stoned than betray their Lord?

What happened to Corpus Christi processions at Corpus Christi parishes?  Why doesn\’t the Church in the country become the greenhouse of holy farmers?  Why doesn\’t the Church in the city produce another Mother Teresa?  Do you have a lot of doctors and nurses in the area? Why not start traditions and devotions to St. Gianna?

How often do we address the unique needs and capacities of our community members before trying to figure out how to minister to them?  Do we send out surveys asking what they desire to learn more about, or what questions or problems the parish as a whole are facing?

2.) Evangelization should be the object of a loving art, and therefore high quality.

If we have the boldness to believe that we are involved in the sacred and holy task of transmitting Christ to others, we need to really reevaluate how we are accomplishing this.  Do not make bad cheese, and do not serve Christ up on a cracker.

We need to have a more profound and deep reverence for what it is we are doing when we attempt to evangelize.  Jesus Christ deserves much more than a clip art presentation thrown together at the back of the social hall.

We need authentic and beautiful culture.  Why not encourage local art at our parish? Why not devote time and energy into fostering local spirituality: a spirituality of the fields, of the hills, of the city, of the farmer, of the rich, of the poor, of the community in your specific area that is more than just a thrown together prayer service, but is the work of a loving art?

The methods and modes we use to evangelize should be crafted and perfected – the object of a loving art.  The way we speak, write, and advertise should all be approached with a awed humility.  We are announcing the Most High, we should remember that we share this task with angels.

Prudence and Zeal

I won’t shy away from saying these things, even though some will read this and think “Yes, we need banjos in Mass and a kid with a streamer to dance during Father’s homily, and clowns, lots of clowns!”  I am not advocating for the type of unique expression that is a mutilation of the truths of the faith.  Zeal for authenticity and vibrancy must not mean the sacrifice of orthodoxy and universality.

I will leave you with the cheesy words of the Church:

From the Conclusion of the recent Synod on the New Evangelization

No one person or group in the Church has exclusive right to the work of evangelization. It is the work of ecclesial communities as such, where one has access to all the means for encountering Jesus: the Word, the sacraments, fraternal communion, charitable service, mission.

In this perspective, the role of the parish emerges above all as the presence of the Church where men and women live, “the village fountain”, as John XXIII loved to call it, from which all can drink, finding in it the freshness of the Gospel. It cannot be abandoned, even though changes can require of it either to be made up of small Christian communities or to forge bonds of collaboration within larger pastoral contexts. We exhort our parishes to join the new forms of mission required by the new evangelization to the traditional pastoral care of God\’s people. These must also permeate the various important expressions of popular piety.

From Evangelii Nuntiandi

40. The obvious importance of the content of evangelization must not overshadow the importance of the ways and means. This question of \”how to evangelize\” is permanently relevant, because the methods of evangelizing vary according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture, and because they thereby present a certain challenge to our capacity for discovery and adaptation.

63. The question is undoubtedly a delicate one. Evangelization loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addresses, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life. But on the other hand, evangelization risks losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content under the pretext of translating it.

+JMJ

© 2013. Edmund Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:

Edmund Mitchell is a Catholic youth minister with a passion for Jesus, evangelization, and rugby - especially when all three happen at once. For now he enjoys being a Catholic hipster, until too many people start enjoying it with him, then he'll probably go mainstream. He blogs over at CatholicYouthMinister.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/EdmundMitchell.

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  • Kennedy

    Edmund,

    A smashing article. I’d never come across Chesterton’s views on cheese before. I fully agree with him, although I do like some cheeses with biscuits rather than bread.

    Your whole article makes me think of the post-Vatican II emphasis on inculturation. Believe it or not, there was a review in the “Tablet” (a magazine much hated by “traditionalists”) on 12th January that mentioned foreign Catholics in England reintroducing things like the Legion of Mary that they had learned from the missionaries but that the locals had dropped.

  • http://www.traditium.com Traditius

    Marvelous. If there was a faith that worshiped cheese, my soul would probably be at risk. I am happy to see it is properly Catholic :).

    T