The Four Ways Forward by Susan Windley-Daoust - My Initial Comments
My first impressions and interactions with SWD's new evangelization book, including the highlights of chapters 1-3.
Susan Windley-Daoust, longtime theology professor and now Director of Missionary Discipleship for the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, kindly sent me a copy of her new book The Four Ways Forward: Becoming an Apostolic Parish in a Post-Christian World. As I get underway with my reading, I’d like to go ahead and share a few highlights.
Some background and related links:
You may remember Susan Windley-Daoust from the snippet-review I did of her evangelization quick-start guide 101 Ways to Evangelize: Ideas for Helping Fearless, Fearful, and Flummoxed Catholics Share the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is one of my top three go-to evangelization books. The Four Ways is exactly the opposite of that book; now she pulls out the depth of her training as a theologian to seriously assess models for evangelization in light of magisterial teaching and the present state of American culture.
So far I am finding the new book to be written at a level that should be comfortable for subscribers here, but it does assume you have a fairly well-developed theological background, including at least a passing knowledge of technical vocabulary and the major papal writings on evangelization. You don’t need an advanced degree, and the writing is clear and accessible (not, at all, plagued by the horrifically obtuse style popular among many academics), but it’s definitely a book for grown-ups.
[Emphasizing, though: Our Sunday Visitor employs some of the best editors in the business. It is by definition a well-written book that is accessible to any educated reader.]
If you’d like to be challenged but aren’t as into big-picture frameworks and church documents, check out Gracewatch.org. There’s an evangelization newsletter you can subscribe to and also a handful of free downloadable resources.
If you ever inherit a former review book of mine, you’ll discover inside covers that look like this:
I read with a pencil in hand, and in addition to underlining text and marking up the margins of the book, I make a running list of pages I want to return to in a review. In the photo above are my highlights of Part 1 of the book. I’m not going to translate every one of those remarks (some of them would make whole stand-alone essays), but I do want to share a few of them.
And let me just point out, the mostly-illegible comments after the page numbers are sometimes quotes or summaries from the book, but often they are my reactions to whatever is found at the noted page number. So for example, there at page 42, that was me concluding: “Every new bishop needs this book.”
What follows are some highlights of my interaction with the reading from Part 1.
Chapter 1 - Beyond Christendom
One of the hazards of being a longtime Christian is getting insulated in your mental bubble. You are no longer as immersed in the wider culture as you once were, because you’ve made the decision to avoid harmful influences and near occasions of sin. Your closest friends are followers of Jesus, and many people in your life who don’t share your Christian point of view are likely self-censoring around you, often out of respect for your beliefs.
Furthermore, you tend to view what the secular culture has to offer through a Christian lens, noticing the true, good, and beautiful wherever it may be found. As you do your best to view others through the eyes of Christ, you tend to notice and savor the kindness and heroism of others. It’s mentally a good place to be.
Chapter 1 of The Four Ways is a sharp corrective: You need to understand just how desolate is the world that young people are growing up in today. When we say our society is post-Christian, we don’t just mean the externals of daily religious practice are on the decline (though those, too, are dramatic and worrisome!), we mean that young people are seriously suffering from an intense personal bleakness that was not the case even ten or twenty years ago.
I wrote in The How-to Book of Evangelization about the predominate modern spiritual framework of “Materialistic Therapeutic Deism” and its significance for evangelists; now imagine a new generation lacking even that much for a theological foundation.
Needless to say, evangelizing young people who have no grounding in the hopefulness of any kind of theist philosophy requires some serious reassessment.
Chapter 2 - The New Evangelization and Its Emerging Models
Something I like immensely about this book is that it is utterly useless for Church-insiders who want to slap the latest new labels and methods on whatever it is they’ve been doing all along.
I came of age in the era when the go-to branding phrase for Catholic-anything was “the New Evangelization.” Very often, if those words meant anything at all, they meant one of two things:
This thing we are doing is completely different than what you remember from your pre-Vatican II childhood, because all of that is outdated and irrelevant now.
This thing we are doing is edgy and modern! The youngsters will love it!
Lest you misunderstand me, let me be very clear: I am in no way nostalgic for some mythical golden age of perfectly-perfect Catholicism, nor do I disdain, at all, creativity and innovation. I’ll be doubly clear: Kids like the stuff their grandmothers think up. Just because you are a weathered old fuddy-duddy does not mean that your fun new idea for a Vacation Bible School activity is going to be lost on the youth.
What The Four Ways clarifies, though, is that “the new evangelization” is not about choices of methods, even though (obviously) methods can never be irrelevant. It is about something far more fundamental, and which I have virtually never heard articulated so explicitly: The people we think of as already-evangelized actually still need to be evangelized.
The new in “new evangelization” means: Do it again. Do-over. Re-application. Second dose.
I underlined this: “People in long-standing Christian communities need to hear the first proclamation again.” (p. 38, emphasis mine.)
I was that person. Neither my Catholic heritage, nor my first pass through catechesis and living the Catholic life — in complete sincerity! — were sufficient for me. I needed to be re-evangelized, and thank goodness people in my life answered that call.
When I see someone who “should know better” leave the Catholic faith? That’s my sign that this person needs prayer, fasting, and re-evangelization.
I won’t repeat every single thing I highlighted in Chapter 2 of The Four Ways, but it’s a spot-on summary of the basic concepts of evangelization. My SWD-crush is totally cemented by the last sentence, which wraps up the overview by concluding: “And we need to start actually evangelizing.” (p. 51)
Chapter 3 - Souls are Not for Sale: The Problem with Program Dependence
If you’ve already read The How-to, you know I have a chapter about how we have to let go of the program mentality. The Four Ways addresses this crucial topic from a different perspective, and this is why I need to emphasize again: This is a book for grown-ups.
Susan Windley-Daoust lays out a case for how our consumerist-culture has influenced our church problem-solving, and the case she makes requires the reader to rationally follow a line of evidence and arguments. You have to be able to think. You have to be able to read for comprehension and hold ideas in your head for longer than two sentences.
I’m sorry I need to be so blunt, but you know people who cannot do this. These people should not attempt Chapter 3.
It’s not a long or technical chapter. It is much easier, in terms of vocabulary and theology, than Chapter 2 (and anyone competent for ordination should have no difficulty with Chapter 2); indeed it’s a great chapter for ordinary people who have just been living the Christian life and spending time with Jesus, because the arguments will very much resonate.
But alas, you know people who decline to contemplate. For them you can just repeat the money quote from the chapter conclusion (p. 59):
Programs are like an examination of conscience — a tool, an instrument. The lists and questions can be a real help. But they can’t substitute for a reliance on the Holy Spirit to call to mind the repentance you need to offer the Lord.
Why do we expect so much out of programs? Well, in part, marketing departments encourage us to do so. But it is also because, deep down, we believe we can buy our way out of everything, apparently including perdition.
I’ll stop there for now. If you’re the target audience, I can safely recommend the book because Susan Windley-Daoust is someone you need to be reading. End-of-story, fact, do not deprive yourself.
For everyone else, I’ll try to do at least one more check-in as I continue. My expectation is that I’m going to see in the articulation of The Four Ways many things I’ve said myself, but now expressed a little differently, and also a few things that challenge me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to let myself be stretched.