Ashes to Ashes: The Evangelicals—Part II

To continue the discussion of evangelicals, begun last month: Catholics are somewhat aghast at the sheer energy that is at work in the evangelical churches. For one thing, the evangelicals never need to have any sort of yearly can­vass for funds. You can’t stop them from giving lavishly. Catholics think you are doing handsomely if you ante up 10 percent of your annual income;evangelicals empty their pockets. For another thing, evangelicals talk inces­santly about their faith. In random conversation, over the telephone, in endless Bible study and fellowship groups, they speak in familiar terms to each other about “the Lord.” A Catho­lic may find himself staggered by this happy volubility and wonder what has happened to the mysterium tremendum in all of the chat. On the other hand, your evangelical may likewise find himself nonplussed by the Catholic’s embarrassment when it comes to nat­tering about the Faith. (This is why many evangelicals wonder among themselves whether Catholics are “saved” at all: How can they say they believe something about which they are so unwilling to pipe up?)

The Catholic’s question about this easy familiarity with “the Lord” is difficult to answer, since the founders of Protestantism—Luther and John Calvin, and even Ulrich Zwingli and

Menno Simon (of the Mennonites)— would have found it odd. Their clien­tele did not seem to have been quite so happy-go-lucky about things. The habit may have arisen in the wake of the great John Wesley’s preaching in 18th-century England. He preached the necessity of intelligent conversion (as opposed to infant baptism) and set his people on a course of ardent, Bible-based spirituality. But if the habit did not appear then, it most certainly did in the wake of the mass-meet­ings of the 19th-century evangelist D. L. Moody. (It may be worth not­ing for some confused Catholics that an “evangelist” is merely a man who preaches the gospel—while an “evan­gelical” is a Christian who finds his home in the sector of Protestantism of which we are here speaking.) As a result of Moody’s preaching, an enor­mous number of eager believers was added to the ranks of American Prot­estantism, and they, with their leaders, were more than ready to speak quite informally about their faith.

At their meetings, they were (and are) much given to offering “testimo­nies,” which take the form of one’s standing up in a meeting and talking in an impromptu way about “what God has been doing for me these days.” These testimonies are heavily laced with Scripture quotations, which fact leads us to yet another characteristic practice of the evangelicals that ought to interest Catholics: the discipline of “Scripture memory.” Beginning as a child, at your Sunday school and vaca­tion Bible school, you are given lists of Bible texts to memorize, usually with the reference for each one attached to your recitation the next day. So, a tot will stand up and say, “John 14:6, ‘Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.’

Readers will ask what all of this “saith” and “cometh” is about. It be­trays the version of the Bible from which I and all generations of Prot­estants from the 1950s back to the 17th century memorized these texts. It is the King James Version, properly called the Authorized Version, trans­lated from the Hebrew and Greek and published in 1611 at the behest of King James I of England. I have heard Catholics refer to this Bible as “the St. James Version.” King James was not, so far as we know, a saint, although (another memory verse of mine) “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart.” Thank God for that!

To be continued next month…

  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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