On the shoulders of giants Part 1: Fulton J Sheen

Rick: So The Eternal Galilean blew your mind. Why not simply pass that book out?

The book definitely took me somewhere I did not expect to go. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was the world’s first TV evangelist, a great communicator who at one time outdrew TV’s first star, Milton Berle. A story goes around that when someone asked Uncle Miltie what he thought about getting beaten in the ratings by an Evangelist, Berle responded that Bishop Sheen had better writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

As I said earlier, the book had a tremendous impact on me. The first chapter has a delightful GK Chesterton quality to it, and I would venture to say it is written to an audience of men and women jaded and confused by the Modern era. It was also written with a certain Catholic style I was used to, that I later found to be somewhat grating to my inner ear. I’ve told people since that, when returning to it, I found the book to be far worse than I remembered. I picked it up a couple times, opened it up, and couldn’t understand why it affected me so, and put it down immediately with a shrug.

The third time I tried, I realized it was indeed a better book than I gave it credit for. The fourth time, rather than open it to a random page, I decided to go straight to the front, as I did the first time. This time I realized I was in the presence of a literary giant – or a master communicator anyway. Here was a man who could bring words to concepts to create an imagery that communicated visual truth. Basically, by appealing to my inner child, he had me at hello. Here, try a bit for yourself:

(C) 1934, by D. Appleton Century Company Inc.

And to continue….

I am skirting trouble for reproducing the above pages with the express written consent of the good folks at Appleton Century, a venerable company in its day. But you get the idea. Short sentences, needless words omitted, visuals, repetition. As a Hollywood writer and communicator, Sheen had the skills of Rod Serling: classic persuasion technique, pulling you in. God knew what he was doing when he assigned Fulton Sheen to Hollywood.

The book jump started me to a renewed faith: faith like a child. I remember thinking at one time, as I heard the story of Adam and Eve, “Hey, this fellow is talking about Adam and Eve as if they really existed. As if this really happened.” Suddenly I realized I was giving myself permission to be a child again and believe in Adam and Eve. Cool.”

But the “cool” part of believing in such myths cooled significantly as I had to go from merely being allowed to believe in a myth to actually having to defend it. Being a Christian means carrying a lot of baggage. It means standing on the shoulders of both giants and midgets. Part of growing up is getting off the shoulders of midgets and peer more intensely into what the giants are saying. But, I was safe in my little cocoon in the 1980’s only once in a while having to encounter fire and scorn from the scientific/atheist community. Typically this would happen only whenever I ventured into a public library and search in the right aisles. We were taught quickly in those days that to discuss religion and politics was to invite misery.

However, by the late 90’s the landscape was changing. A rebuttal to anything I said regarding faith and truth could be immediately rebutted with a powerful link (with, naturally an accompanying that went something like: “Here, you idiot you. Read this…”). The world Sheen painted got smaller as the child got bigger, and the sophistication of the opposing viewpoint was increasing, and now impossible to ignore. Still, I persisted – pointing holes in the counter arguments, taking the best shots as best I could, yet even while holding my own, still feeling a bit like Forrest Gump (“I’m not a smart man”). I discovered a world of scholarship taking dead aim at my faith. It got so that the religious scholars, situated in the finest universities, were so emboldened they were refuting that the early Christians even believed in the resurrection itself. On the left I was fighting off the new Atheists and Jesus Seminar Scholars, and from the right I had to defend my affinity toward the evangelicals, pentecostals, charismatics, who according to the One True Faith were already in bed with the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, and Garner Ted Armstrongs. I strived, as the Apostle Paul said, to maintain the unity of the faith with my Catholic brethren, and found they were at odds as well – since Vatican II anyway. Of course there are differences among you, Paul explained. How else are we going to find out which is right? (I wouldn’t even know how to be a Christian were it not for Paul and his letters to those first century new believers going through the same issues I did).

It was around 2007 that I picked up the second book in my picture stack above, a delightful read by the prolific Historian and Catholic liberal/apostate(?) Garry Wills. Professor Wills is a hard core liberal, but an honest scholar, a trustworthy scholar, and always a good read. I avidly devoured his historical works. He eventually turned his attention from Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan and MacBeth, to the Vatican and Papacy. I found that while we disagreed on so much culturally and politically, interestingly this Catholic scholar understood Saint Paul much the same way I understood him. The context matched up wonderfully, and this leftist scholar, himself once a darling protegee of the great conservative William F. Buckley, became a soulmate of sorts of mine. Wills pointed out both the validity of Paul’s letters as the earliest and most reliable writing by the first church and how they could be used to accurately demonstrate the early Church most definitely believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus – that this wasn’t simply an invention by a cabal of second and third generations of Christian. This would seem to be indisputable today, but when a influential group of scholars argue otherwise – well, it’s difficult to stand toe to toe with an expert, much more so a brilliant one.

Wills’ book What Jesus Meant was, like Sheen’s Eternal Galilean, a short little book, tightly written, and original. Yet while coming from a vantage point much different than mine: liberal Catholicism, I found it matched in most ways the context of my own understanding as I read and studied the gospel accounts. This little book that chronicled the life of Jesus as Wills – a biased yet honest scholar – renewed my spirit, much like Sheen’s book did. After reading it, I decided that I wanted to someday do the same: write a little book on the life of Jesus that might jump start or re-fire another young man’s faith and interest in the man from Galilee. It really is the greatest story ever told. It’s also the most told story ever told. That was my challenge: the world is not exactly looking for a book on Jesus by an un-credentialed nobody. Lord knows there are thousands of those out there already. Therefore, it better be good. It better have something worthwhile to say.

“OK, Rick. So, you read book on the life of Jesus by a conservative Catholic, and a liberal Catholic. Who is Frank Viola and where does he fit in? Let me guess, judging from the Italian name, I’m gonna guess he’s a moderate Catholic.”

Wrong. Pretty far from it, actually. That would bring a chuckle out of him, I’ll bet. Let me answer that question tomorrow….

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