Newman, Lent, and Popular Culture?

 One of the great challenges in Newman scholarship today has to do with making Newman's work more applicable for members of the younger generations, many of whom have never been exposed to his thought and writings. Considering the extensive nature of Newman's work, its influence on the Christian faith and society as a whole, and the fact that he will soon be canonized a saint, it seems imperative to bridge this gap between the Cardinal's work and modern and postmodern inquiring minds. This brief blog post is an attempt at this feat (perhaps a foolish one).

In the 1989 American action-adventure film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, directed by Steven Spielberg, set in 1938, Indiana searches for his father, a Holy Grail scholar, who has been kidnapped by Nazis. In one of the final scenes, in an effort to gain access to the temple which houses both the grail and the final healing opportunity for his father to be saved from death, Indiana must pass three "challenges" along a daunting path. The object of the first challenge is to, at risk of peril, kneel before the Breath of God, for "only the penitent man shall pass." Biblical scholars might salivate at the thought of dissecting the implications of such a scene in light of Wisdom/Logos theology or pneumatology! The object of the second challenge is to apprehend the Word of God in the Name of God, for "only in the footsteps of God will one proceed." The last challenge, the Path of God, expresses the need to, at times, live out one's faith—to take a "leap of faith" when it is the most difficult to do so, for "only in the leap from the lion's head will he prove his worth." In sum, whether they knew it or not, the writers and producers of Indiana Jones were hitting on some rather profound Lenten concepts: Penitence of sin, Proclamation of the name of God, and Practicing faith.

At risk of being both anachronistic and outlandishly frivolous with the seriousness and profundity of Newman's spiritual and theological legacy, here it goes: I contend that Newman prefaced Indiana Jones's three challenges regarding penitence, proclamation, and practice of the faith in his writings, and his thoughts are rather apropos for our current Lenten season. For the sake of brevity, we will just hit upon Newman's ideas, but I will point out the citations as to leave room for further exploration.

The first is in Newman's second sermon in Sermons on Subjects of the Day entitled "Saintliness not Forfeited by the Penitent." Newman takes on the important subject of penitence, in light of the Apostle Paul's extreme conversion from persecutor of the church to Apostle. Newman here is warning against the lax idea that it is better for someone to begin at the extremes of the sinful life and repent than for someone to simply live a holy and obedient life. Yet, for our purposes, the following quote will teach us well during this time of Lenten preparation:

"First, what is very plain, it is less likely, far less likely, that a great sinner should turn to God and become a great saint. It is unlikely that a gross sinner will listen to the Divine Voice at all; it is much to be feared that he will quench the grace which is pleading with him. Again, even if he follows the call so far as to repent, yet it is less likely still that the habits of sin which he has formed round his soul will so relax their hold of him, as to allow him to lay aside every weight."

The question before us as members of the church in twenty-first century America is this: are we willing to truly repent, and are we anxious to "surrender the habits of sin which form round our souls," and thereby "lay aside every weight?"

The second of Newman's ideas involve that of proclamation, an important concept that was recently revived both through Saint John Paul II's "New Evangelization," and also in the 1991 "Dialogue and Proclamation: Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue." One of Newman's most influential treatises on evangelization is found in his fifth of the Oxford sermons entitled "Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth." Newman's views here do not directly exhibit what we think of regarding "evangelism" in twenty-first century America, but instead seem to promote a life of longsuffering love of neighbor, and holiness, a set of virtues that become more and more important as the church listens to the voice of its saints and imparts these virtues as Lenten disciplines. Hear Newman's voice on the subject of "the apology of holiness" and the patient, personal witness of the followers of Christ in relation to the proclamation of the truths of God:

"The men commonly held in popular estimation are greatest at a distance; they become small as they are approached; but the attraction, exerted by unconscious holiness, is of an urgent and irresistible nature; it persuades the weak, the timid, the wavering, and the inquiring; it draws forth the affection and loyalty of all who are in a measure like-minded; and over the thoughtless or perverse multitude it exercises a sovereign compulsory sway, bidding them fear and keep silence, on the ground of its own right divine to rule them,—its hereditary claim on their obedience, though they understand not the principles or counsels of that spirit, which is 'born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.' So thus, we ask ourselves the question, do our every day lives exhibit this kind of '. . . attraction, exerted by unconscious holiness?' Do our words and actions in this life produce a fruit consistent with '. . . an urgent and irresistible nature?'"

The third and last of Newman's ideas have to do with our theme of "taking a leap of faith." What does it mean to practice the faith, and for that faith to be alive and active? Newman speaks to this in the third of his Parochial and Plain sermons, in the sixth sermon entitled "Faith and Obedience." Newman states,

"The Gospel being pre-eminently a covenant of grace, faith is so far of more excellence than other virtues, because it confesses this beyond all others. Works of obedience witness to God's just claims upon us, not to His mercy: but faith comes empty-handed, hides even its own worth, and does but point at that precious scheme of redemption which God's love has devised for sinners. Hence, it is the frame of mind especially suitable to us, and is said, in a special way, to justify us, because it glorifies God, witnessing that He accepts those and those only, who confess they are not worthy to be accepted. On this account, faith has a certain prerogative of dignity under the Gospel. At the same time we must never forget that the more usual mode of doctrine both with Christ and His Apostles is to refer our acceptance to obedience to the commandments, not to faith; and this, as it would appear, from a merciful anxiety in their teaching, lest, in contemplating God's grace, we should forget our own duties."

Thus, we ask ourselves during this Lenten time of self-sacrifice, penitent reflection, and mindful meditation about our own inadequacies in relation to the perfect and redemptive work of Christ. In what ways will our faith be confirmed in our acts of obedience and loyalty to Christ, and what disciplines should we actively encounter that might remind us to avoid the traps of a "cheap grace?" By putting our faith into action through the discipline of obedience, we aspire to the union with Christ that was indeed close to the heart of Newman, and our lives conform to that cruciform existence, which is the witness of every follower of Jesus. In this sense, John Henry Newman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a man whose faith cost him his own life at the hands of the Nazis in April of 1945) would find themselves in agreement. Bonhoeffer writes:

"Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a world of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 45).

In sum, we see Newman's own words, and the influence that they carry, speaking to our Lenten moment. We seek to be penitent, renouncing sin, and taking on the yoke of righteousness granted by Christ. We seek to proclaim the gospel through our words, but also through our quiet and consistent lives of holiness and attractive influence, and we practice our faith through acts of obedience and self-surrender. 


Dr. Steven D. Aguzzi is an ordained Presbyterian minister and works as an adjunct professor at local Pittsburgh universities, including Duquesne University. He earned his doctorate from Duquesne, specializing in Jewish-Catholic comparative theology, and his Master's of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Dr. Aguzzi authored the book, Israel, the Church, and Millenarianism: A Way Beyond Replacement Theology.

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