“Evangelisation” is a loaded word. In many ways, perhaps, we are like a young Thérèse of Lisieux, whose dreams of evangelisation were a matter of heroic missionary journeys, travelling to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Good News. And, to be fair, this has been an important dimension to Catholic evangelisation throughout the ages; St Paul is the great archetype of mission in the Church.

Still, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle offered a great insight into evangelisation recently, one that’s worth reflecting on. Cardinal Tagle is the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, and was asked to give the closing speech of a Vatican conference on the theology of the priesthood held last month. In his address, Cardinal Tagle said:

Sometimes we make things very complicated – “evangelization”. It is a conversation. It is a conversation about Jesus.’

He also spoke about the ‘dangerous love’ of Jesus: ‘The ones Jesus loves are the ones he sends . . . The more he loves you, the more he sends you.’

It is an elegant way of thinking about evangelisation: conversation. It is an essentially relational term, for starters, and it doesn’t have the stuffy, wooden feeling that “dialogue” carries (or the hollow sound of political gesturing). It is also timely that we think about evangelisation in this way, because the art of conversation is on a steep decline, especially in the age of a social media hell-scape.

Maybe, following Cardinal Tagle, one of the best things we could do to breathe new life into our baptismal calling to evangelisation is to learn how to have a conversation with those closest to us, especially about the matters we consider most meaningful.

As the Catholic poet Heather King likes to say, ‘the Gospel is a program of attraction, not promotion.’ Authentic, personal conversation, artfully done, can be the context in which attraction begins to stir in the soul.

Tolkien and Lewis

A model example of this kind of conversation is the one between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on the evening of 19 September 1931. This conversation is significant because it’s one that helped move Lewis closer to embracing Christianity.

By this point, Tolkien and Lewis had already struck up a profound friendship – Tolkien helping Lewis to overcome two prejudices: the prejudice against Papists and that against philologists. Usually they would have their robust conversations on Monday mornings, finishing off with a beer at the Eastgate, a local pub. This particular evening, however, Lewis had invited Tolkien out for dinner, and while taking a walk, along with their friend Hugo Dyson, their conversation evidently turned to the topic of mythology.

Now, the conversation itself is hidden from us, because nobody recorded it exactly. However, soon after that evening, Tolkien composed a poem called Mythopoeia (Myth-Maker), which was written from ‘Philomythus’ (the Myth-Lover) to ‘Misomythus’ (the Myth-Hater). It was dedicated to someone who said that myths were ‘lies breathed through silver,’ and since one manuscript is marked ‘for C.S.L.’, a lot can be assumed about the conversation. This is the thread Tolkien scholar Humphrey Carpenter picks up in his magisterial biography (Allen & Unwin, 1977).

Lewis had already come to believe in God, but Christianity was still a bridge too far. Lewis loved mythology, particularly Norse stories and those of dying and resurrecting gods (like Balder). Still, the idea that such a story taking place two thousand years ago could have any effect on us here and now was something he was unable to come to grips with.

‘Myths are lies,’ he would say, ‘even though lies breathed through silver.’

To which Tolkien made the following argument: Language is, fundamentally, a matter of invention. We refer to trees as trees and stars as stars, but the only reason we do that is because someone gave them those names. Even though words are inventions does not mean they are lies. To quote Carpenter’s lovely retelling of Tolkien’s argument:

And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.’

Even though mythology contains errors, if we read them literally, they also reflect aspects of the truth because humanity is fundamentally oriented towards truth. Christianity is simply ‘true myth’. From this conversation, Lewis would come to an understanding of Christianity that deeply influenced him, one reflected in his essay ‘Myth Became Fact’, where he argues that the mythological parallels between the Gospels and pagan stories should not shock us in the slightest:

Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens - at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.’

Seeds for a fresh way of living out evangelisation

In his poem ‘Mythopoeia’, Tolkien writes that poets and myth-makers will have a special place in Paradise:

Be sure they still will make, not been dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.’

What is so powerful about this conversation between Lewis and Tolkien is not only the fact that it moved Lewis to a point where he could embrace Christianity, but also that it stirred Tolkien enough to create and write poetry. The conversation was edifying and generative.

If we were to take to heart the words of Cardinal Tagle and the example of Tolkien and Lewis, then we might have the seeds for a fresh way of thinking, talking, and living out evangelisation in the modern era. And it might help us have the conversations that are worth writing poetry about.

Feature image: Encyclopædia Britannica