Overzealous Evangelism Sucks

I think that one reason some people don’t like Pope Francis is because he doesn’t suck at evangelizing.

I’m at the airport right now, sitting at my terminal, recovering from an experience I think we are all familiar with, in many different settings. In this case, it was an overzealous TSA worker in the airport security line.

I don’t envy the job: the recent furloughs, the hours, the uniforms, the thankless work, the fact that many people — myself included — think that this whole security charade is pointless. I am inclined to pity them and, when possible, be nice to them. I’ve met dozens of good humored and kind TSA workers.

But today was different.

I stood in line, going through my routine of sorting my things between three plastic bins, as the first TSA worker was VERY LOUDLY telling us what to do. She was not wrong. Everything she said was exactly correct. And she was very serious.

Before I could get my coat off, she told me to take it off. After that, she asked if I had liquids of any amount in my bag. When I replied “no,” she looked at me funny. Then she went away.

Her replacement was worse. I was still in line as she walked around, shouting instructions to the point that we, the travelers, began looking at each other. She told me, in an infantilizing tone of voice, to take my belt out of my shoe. Odd. I always roll up my belt and put it in my shoe to go through the scanner. It’s a routine. But I obeyed. She was probably right about that, too.

I know people can have bad days and working on a clock can be a unique form of torture, but there was an overall feel to this particular security station that made me believe it was much more than that. More than a few exceptions to the rule. The next person I encountered, in charge of the body scanner, very sternly told me to put my hands in the air. They already were, but oh well.

I usually put my plastic bins away, to save trouble and help out, but this time I left them out, in protest. I really showed ‘em.

The sense I got from the whole experience was that these TSA workers took their jobs too seriously. By taking their work too seriously, they failed to be serious about it. Their overzealousness didn’t make them appear skilled at their job. On the contrary, it made the whole thing look like a joke. A very annoying joke.

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Academics do this a lot, too. I know well over a couple dozen academics who like to hide behind the “seriousness” of their Ph.D. and institutional authority. But their ideas often reveal the source of their insecurity. I also know at least one hundred academics who care deeply about their work, their students, and have no time or energy to waste on credential boasting. Plus, there are many academics — first and foremost for me is William James, who had an MD, not a Ph.D. — who never bothered to get a terminal degree in their field. All fields of study were invented by by a nonspecialist who rigorously imagined it into being.

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I’ve met hundreds of Catholics who could learn a lot from this experience. Sometimes I feel like the Catholic circles I run in, online and elsewhere, dangerously trend toward being similar to that dysfunctional TSA security station. Perhaps worst: unlike the security workers, many of these Catholics spend a great deal of time harassing each other, spewing outrage and sharing more fuel to be outraged about and watching programs that remind them about the ubiquity of outrage. They send lots of emails, too. Lots of them fake, but outrageous.

Unlike the TSA employees, who at least had some real contact and effect outside their own ranks, these Catholics (you know who they are, to name them here would be gratuitous) are so deeply embedded in their dens of fear and sanctimonious ideological intransigence, that they rarely get a chance to say anything at all to the outside world. And how could they?

With allies like these, who needs enemies?

Devotion, with miraculous doses of grace and mercy, can lead to personal holiness, of course. But it does not follow to assume that this somehow implies anything about how to evangelize.

Being annoying, nasty, lame, and the rest can glorify God. Of this I am sure; this is God’s work, not our own. And we are not trying to sell hot dogs, aftershave lotion, or afterlife insurance. Nothing is off the table, as far as I’m concerned, including sucking at sharing the Gospel.

But it does seem noteworthy that these TSA workers were never, not one time, wrong about what they were saying and doing. They were, in one sense, flawless at their job. They told the truth. In another sense, they made a mockery of their work.

To tell the truth poorly is to make a mockery of it, even if you’re right.

The same seems true about many of the hot and bothered Catholic culture warriors I know. No, technically speaking, they’re not wrong about relativism and abortion and Obama. These are all terrible things. But this is hardly a feat of insight. There is nothing radical about it. Do you really think that if we just flipped things around, somehow, we’d all become holy and happy and pleasing in the sight of God?

Failure is nothing to get too worked up about. Sin is real. We all fail, sometimes, and maybe I am making too much of this airport incident. Nonetheless, it is an occasion to remind recent critics of Francis that his witness, in word and deed, seems to not be failing in a very important, and perhaps inconvenient, way: he doesn’t take himself too seriously and, in doing so, makes room for the dead serious message of the Gospel.

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When I fly, I never turn off my phone or electronic devices.

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