I like to watch old movies. Over the past several months, I’ve watched (or re-visited) a number of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, some screwball comedies from the thirties and forties, and a couple of film-noir classics. Last week, over the course of three evenings, I managed to get through the three hours and forty minutes (yes, you read that correctly) of the Charlton Heston version of the Ten Commandments from 1956. With delight, I took in the still marvelous technicolor, the over-the-top costumes, the wonderfully corny faux-Shakespearean dialogue, and the hammy acting that is, one might say, so bad that it’s good. But what especially struck me was the sheer length of the film. Knowing that it required a rather extraordinary act of attention on the part of its audience, it is astonishing to remember that it was wildly popular, easily the most successful movie of its time. It is estimated that, adjusted for inflation, it earned a box office of roughly two billion dollars. Would moviegoers today, I wondered, ever be able to muster the patience required to make a film like the Ten Commandments equally popular today? I think the question answers itself.
The coming together of daunting length and popularity then put me in mind of a number of other examples of this combination from cultural history. In the nineteenth-century, the novels of Charles Dickens were so sought after that ordinary Londoners waited in long lines for chapters as they were published in serial form. And let’s face it: not a lot happens in Dickens novels, by which I mean very few things blow up; there are no alien invasions; no snappy one-liners uttered by the heroes before they blow away the bad guys. For the most part, they consist of lengthy conversations among fascinating and quirky characters. Much the same can be said of the novels and stories of Dostoevsky. Though there is indeed a murder and a police investigation at the heart of the plot of The Brothers Karamazov, for the vast majority of that famous novel, Dostoevsky arranges various characters in drawing rooms for pages and pages and pages of dialogue on matters political, cultural, and religious. During that same period, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in a series of debates on the vexed issue of slavery in America. They spoke for hours at a time—and in an intellectually elevated manner. If you doubt me, look up the texts online. Their audiences were not cultural elites or students of political philosophy, but rather ordinary Illinois farmers, who stood in the mud, gave their full attention, and strained to hear the orators’ unamplified voices. Could you even begin to imagine an American crowd today willing to stand for a comparable length of time and listen to complex presentations on public policy—and for that matter, could you imagine any American politician willing or able to speak at Lincolnian length and depth? Once again, the questions answer themselves.
Why this look back at modes and styles of communication from another age? Because by contrast ours seem so impoverished! I certainly understand the value of social media and I readily use them in my evangelical work, but at the same time, I am acutely aware of how they have lessened our attention span and capacity for sophisticated conversation and real advance toward the truth. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and especially Twitter specialize in flashy headlines, misleading titles, simplistic characterizations of an opponent’s position, sound bites in place of arguments, and mean-spirited rhetoric. Just dip into the comment boxes on any of these sites, and you’ll immediately see what I mean.
A favorite technique on social media is to take a phrase or even a single word of a person’s argument, wrench it out of context, give it the worst possible interpretation, and then splash one’s outrage all over the internet. Everything has to be fast, easily digested, simple to understand, black and white—because we have to get clicks on our site, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world. What worries me is that an entire generation has come of age conditioned by this mode of communication and hence is largely incapable of summoning the patience and attention required for intelligent engagement of complex issues. I noticed this, by the way, in my nearly twenty years of teaching in the seminary. Over those two decades, it became increasingly difficult to get my students to read, say, a hundred pages of St. Augustine’s Confessions or of Plato’s Republic. Especially in more recent years, they would say, “Father, I just can’t concentrate that long.” Well, the auditors of the Lincoln-Douglas debates could, and so could the readers of Dickens, and so even could those who sat through The Ten Commandments sixty-some years ago.
So as not to end on a down note, permit me to draw your attention to what I consider a real sign of hope. In just the last couple of years, there has been a trend in the direction of long-form podcasts that are attracting huge audiences of young people. Joe Rogan, who hosts one of the most popular shows in the country, speaks to his guests for upwards of three hours, and he gets millions of views. In the past year, I have appeared on two podcasts with Jordan Peterson, each one in excess of two hours and featuring pretty high-level discourse and both has reached just shy of one million views.
Perhaps we’re turning a corner. Perhaps young people have tired of vituperative sound bites and superficial pseudo-intellectualism. To encourage this trend, I would like to invite all of you to use much less social media—and maybe pick up The Brothers Karamazov.
© Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Bishop Barron is a #1 Amazon bestselling author and has published numerous books, essays, and articles on theology and the spiritual life. ARTICLE originally published at wordonfire.org. Reprinted with permission.
A few months ago, during a conversation about a “difficult” colleague, my immediate superior remarked: “If I am not able to be a source of solace to such people in my team, then all my spirituality is in vain.” It was a wake-up-call; I had often been in the habit of judging this colleague, so this left me in shame. I realized how badly I had failed to be a true witness to my faith, at my workplace. All of us are surrounded by difficult people, maybe in the form of a nagging spouse, an envious neighbor, an irritating colleague, or a domineering boss. In fact, Jesus dealt with difficult people on a daily basis, giving us the perfect example of compassion. This Lent, let’s be thankful to God for all these difficult people in our lives. Instead of judging and avoiding them, let’s try to be like Jesus. Let’s do to them what Jesus would have done for them if He was in our place. And let’s not forget that it’s not the good people but the difficult people who purify us.
There is a regrettable interpretation of the Cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, an appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath. But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.”(3:16) John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather, God is a parent who burns with compassion for His children who have wandered into danger. Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbor indignation at the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus, God sends his Son, not gleefully to see him suffer, but compassionately to set things right. Saint Anselm, the great medieval theologian who is often unfairly blamed for the cruel theology of satisfaction, was eminently clear on this score. We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not have solved the problem. It would not have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and then polished them off. In so doing, of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of compassion. Jesus said that any disciple of His must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The cross, in short, must become the very structure of the Christian life.
Q: My Protestant friends say that Catholics believe we need to earn our salvation. They say that salvation is by faith alone and that we can’t add to anything that Jesus already did for us on the Cross. But don’t we have to do good works to make it to Heaven? A: This is a pretty big misunderstanding for both Protestants and Catholics. It may seem to be theological minutiae, but it actually has a huge consequence in our spiritual life. The truth is this: We are saved by living faith—our belief in Jesus Christ that is lived out in our words and actions. We must be clear—we do not need to earn our salvation, as if salvation was a prize if we reach a certain level of good deeds. Consider this: who was the first one to be saved? According to Jesus, it was the Good Thief. While he was being rightly crucified for his evil deeds, he cried out to Jesus for mercy, and the Lord promised him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) So, salvation consists in that radical faith, trust, and surrender to what Jesus did on the Cross to purchase mercy. Why is this important? Because many Catholics think that all we have to do to be saved is ‘be a good person’—even if the person doesn’t actually have a living relationship with the Lord. I can’t begin to tell you how many people tell me something like: “Oh, my uncle never went to Mass or prayed, but he was a nice man who did many good things in his life, so I know he’s in Heaven.” While we certainly hope that the uncle is saved by God’s mercy, it isn’t our kindness or good works that save us, but the saving death of Jesus on the Cross. What would happen if a criminal was put on trial for a crime, but he said to the judge, “Your Honor, I did commit the crime, but look at all the other good things I did in my life!” Would the judge let him off? No—he would still have to pay for the crime he committed. Likewise, our sins had a cost—and Jesus Christ had to pay for them. This payment of the debt of sin is applied to our souls through faith. But, faith is not just an intellectual exercise. It must be lived out. As Saint James writes: “Faith without works is dead” (2:24). It’s not enough just to say: “Well, I believe in Jesus, so I can now sin as much as I want.” On the contrary, precisely because we have been forgiven and become heirs to the Kingdom, we must then act like Kingdom-heirs, like sons and daughters of the King. This is very different than trying to earn our salvation. We don’t do good works because we hope to be forgiven—we do good works because we are already forgiven. Our good deeds are a sign that His forgiveness is alive and active in our lives. After all, Jesus tells us: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) If a husband loves his wife, he will seek concrete ways to bless her—giving her flowers, doing the dishes, writing her a love note. He would never say: “Well, we’re married, and she knows I love her, so I can now do whatever I want.” Likewise, a soul that has known the merciful love of Jesus will naturally want to please Him. So, to answer your question, Catholics and Protestants are actually much closer on this issue than they know! We both believe that we are saved by faith—by a living faith, which is expressed in a life of good works as a sign of thanksgiving for the lavish, free gift of salvation that Christ won for us on the Cross.
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6) Do you remember hearing these words as a child? They seemed simple enough—just go to your room, close the door, and pray. I remember hearing them and being confused. Simple words, yes, but it just didn’t make sense that we could only say prayers, in our room, by ourselves. But my child-like faith told me to believe these words. As I grew, so did my faith and understanding of this Scripture. I came to realize these beautiful, profound words meant I could go into my room, turn my heart to the Lord, anytime, anywhere. My prayer life blossomed. How wonderful to spend quiet time with our Father and receive His love. Every time I hear these words from Matthew’s Gospel, I appreciate the Lenten season even more. It’s a reminder of God’s love and how much He desires our friendship. Love heals. For me, that’s the reward when I go into my room and pray.
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