“When Beowulf goes to slay the dragon that has been ravaging the countryside,” I said to my college freshmen the other day, “all of his thanes swear they will stand by him in the battle. But when it comes to the actual crisis, they are nowhere to be found. Only one of them, Wiglaf, remains loyal and helps Beowulf, who has already suffered a mortal wound, to slay the dragon. Without going so far as to say that Beowulf is a Christ-figure, when he clearly is not,” I continued, “it seems safe to say that the poet wants us to think about Christ upon Calvary.”
So far so good. Everyone knows that Jesus was crucified. Then I asked, offhand, “Which of the apostles was loyal enough to remain near to Jesus when they nailed him to the cross?” An embarrassed silence. I gave them clues. “He is portrayed in almost every artistic representation of the Crucifixion. He is usually portrayed as a beardless youth, because tradition had it that he was the youngest of the apostles.” No reply. “Jesus actually addresses him from the Cross.” Then came five guesses.
Those guesses were more telling and more discouraging than the silence.
Sixteen college freshmen, most of them Catholic in one way or another; and not one of them could recall, “Woman, behold your son.”
It occurs to me that if they had been standing in front of the painting of the Crucifixion in the sanctuary of my boyhood church, Saint Thomas Aquinas in Archbald, Pennsylvania, they would not have been able to “read” it. That’s downright strange, when you stop to consider what prompts religious art to begin with.
For you only paint a scene from Scripture, or carve it in stone or cast it in stained glass, if you can depend upon your fellow Christians to recognize it. You are a part of a shared story of the world, and your art provides for the faithful a shared experience or view of some moment or incident in that story.
Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son means very little to us if we do not know the parable; we will not understand why the young man is kneeling, and why his shoes are worn to rags, and why the onlookers are wearing robes so royal.
What we have here is in several ways a thorough inversion. The unlettered people of the Middle Ages, when books were scarce and costly, and when there was therefore no particular reason why a farmer or a miller should know how to read, were yet immersed in stories: the paintings and the stained glass windows provided both expression of and instruction in the faith.
That expression and instruction extended also to the wealth of prayers and hymns that the people heard and knew by heart. When the invention of the printing press made books more affordable, giving ordinary people a practical reason to learn how to read, that put near to hand all of the psalms in their entirety, the propers and commons of the Masses and the daily office, countless prayers and hymns, and accounts of the lives of the saints.
Now all of that is gone. Our young people know how to read, sort of – our schools have largely abandoned poetry in general and English literature written before yesterday afternoon.
But in the stories of Scripture and the faith they are little better off than the pagan Indians gazing in wonder at the strange signs that spoke to the Black Robe from his book. In important ways they are worse off. Those Hurons and Iroquois had centuries of their own immemorial poetic stories that helped them make sense of the world; our poor sub-pagans do not. They have Homer Simpson and Han Solo.
Let me not suggest that when I was their age I was much better off. Oh, I did know the Gospels backwards and forwards, and the prominent stories of the Old Testament. But beyond that I too was religiously illiterate.
I attended Saint Thomas Aquinas school for six years and learned nothing about Saint Thomas Aquinas. I heard Mass at the church there all the time, and could never recognize Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier in the stained glass window. The wardrobe in the vestry had on its doors a carving of the medieval pelican and its young, with the verse from Thomas’ Eucharistic hymn; I had no idea what that was about. No one ever talked about it. The bond of story had been severed.
Let me now deliver my prognosis as bluntly as I can. All the CCD classes in the world cannot make up for this loss. If your imagination is formed by mass entertainment – if you are more familiar with Mr. Spock than with Abraham and Moses, if you can sing the sick doggerel of a song by Madonna but cannot hear the words of Jesus telling us about the lilies of the field – then you are like a pagan who has recently been baptized but who still has only the vaguest sense of what it means to be a Christian.
It is not surprising that the old Vikings, newly evangelized, still thought they could go marauding as they used to. It should not be surprising then that new pagans, barely evangelized, think they can snuff out children in the womb, or go their merry way to Sodom.
The head rules the belly through the chest, as C.S. Lewis tells us, taking his wisdom from the old philosophers and poets, and the chest is the realm of imaginative art, which inspires us with tales of valor and holiness, or degrades us with tales of hedonism, cynicism, godlessness, and depravity.
We must evangelize the imagination. Jesus taught by stories. Should that not tell us something?