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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    “you know who they are, to name them here would be gratuitous”
    Oh do tell. :))
    No, don’t. I don’t want to get you in trouble. Between the overzealous TSA workers, academics, and Catholics I would say the academics bother me the most. That’s one of the reasons i stopped at a master’s. I couldn’t take their sanctomoniousness and feared I would become one of them. I can see the rationale behind the TSA and the Catholics, but the academics do it from pure ego.

  • Jasper0123
    • littlebanana

      Here we go!

    • Guest

      Also … case in point.

    • SamRocha

      Thank you, Jasper. Impressive as Voris is — I read him as a brilliant, shoe-string budget Catholic satire of Bill O’Reilly — I am afraid that I am not going to play the (boring and predictable) usual game. Feel free to name something specific from Voris’ monologue that corresponds directly to my post and then explain your point. If you care about my education, then, you will need to be a better teacher for me.

  • Jane

    Thank you. I was pretty much driven away from a blog I very much enjoyed because of this kind of attitude, where my questions about why some things were the way they were (not saying they were wrong, just asking why) were apparently an affront to the blogger. Technically perfect, but heartless. Thank you for this blog post.

  • Jasper0123

    “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?”

    Yes, we’d be a lot better in the eyes of God.

    “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?”

    The problem is really not with the outside world, the problem is right within our own Catholic Church. If we have a better church, people will be attracted.

    • SamRocha

      1. The question was not one of degree, but one of finality. The answer should be obviously negative.

      2. Problems and blessings abound, in and out of the Church. In the end, there is no better or worse Church, there either is one or there isn’t. My faith is in the former.

  • Dale
    • SamRocha

      Yes, thanks! This is the second time someone has shared that story with me; very apropos.

  • c

    how about we just treat human beings like human beings, that’d be nice.

    • SamRocha

      Sounds pretty easy, I guess. But, then again, I also believe there is something more than merely human about our sister and our brother, glimpses of transcendence even.

  • Margaret Rose Realy

    “To tell the truth poorly is to make a mockery of it, even if you’re right.” Thanks Sam…I am so going to steal this!

    • SamRocha

      Steal away!

  • Brian Formica

    First time reader (courtesy of “Bad Catholic”). Nice post. We need people who can clearly and calmly articulate (with brevity if possible) the faith. More important: we need people who can live it. You know, like the Pope.

  • Peter

    Actually, I don’t know who they are, I’ve only read about them on the internet, never met them in real life.

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