THE POWER OF WITNESS
This blog was originally posted at Courage International's Truth and Love website.
In my undergraduate ministry classes, we heard a common theme. The line was repeated over and over again in every class from all our professors. I even heard a rumor that someone had embroidered it onto a pillow as a gift for another person in the major. I tried searching for something similar on Etsy for this blog, but no cigar.
It’s a line from Pope Paul VI in his 1975 exhortation On Evangelization in the Modern World . “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
I imagine our own teachers gave the line so much emphasis due their own experiences in the Church. Teaching can be radically imperiled by a bad witness. But, illustrated by a grace-filled example of transformation in Christ, witness-driven teaching can have the power to change the world.
Your Brain on Stories
What Pope Paul VI grasped intuitively can find support in science. A team of Princeton neuroscientists measured a woman’s brain activity while she told a personal story , tracking the responses of her own auditory and emotional cortex regions. Next, they played the same story to several listeners, also measuring their brain activity. The same regions of the brain – both auditory and emotional – were active at the same times. In other words, story has the power to trigger empathy on the neurological level. Personal witness compels a response.
Personal witness can also affect behavior. The APA published a study in 2016 on the impact of storytelling on struggling student’s grades. When students read stories about the personal difficulties or professional failures of now-successful scientists, their grades were higher than students who had read about the same scientists’ successes. The researchers speculated off their findings. “We suspect that struggle stories revealed scientists’ vulnerability, which in turn creates a sense of connection between the students and scientists who are often viewed as being untouchable.”
Jesus – in his perfect understanding of the human condition – utilizes the power of story in his ministry. The Gospels are rife with examples of Jesus telling parables to explain the Kingdom of God, discipleship, even himself. And it worked! The Apostles are so impacted by Jesus’ model of evangelization, it forms the coup de grâce in Peter’s speech at Pentecost. “God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses.” The impact of Jesus’ stories echoes through the centuries. The average catechism student might not remember all eight beatitudes, but she or he knows the story of the Good Samaritan.
Seasoned With Salt
It should come as no surprise that many modern listeners find the Church’s teaching on same sex desires to be unpalatable. The entertainment sector, political lobbying, and people’s personal lives bring them face to face, day after day, with the stories of the LGBT community. The narrative of struggle and triumph, repression and self-acceptance, alienation and welcome, is told by real people with quirks, with hobbies, with eminently human stories. And it works.
If we take the insight of Pope Paul VI seriously, we would do well to consider our own teaching approach. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he advises the local church on the way they are to explain things to others. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one” (Colossians 4:6). When we plan an RCIA class, a youth night, or a homily, we must speak the truth in love. Systematic articulation of the Church’s teaching is necessary. In one sense, clear teaching well-seasoned with charity is the “salt” St. Paul speaks of. Perhaps there is another.
Utilize the power of witness to virtuous life in the midst of same sex desires. Desire for the Everlasting Hills is a beautiful film entirely focused on the personal stories of three individuals. The Chastity Project features several shorter testimonial videos in the homosexuality resource section on it’s website. A list of speakers – including some with personal testimony in this area – can be found on the Courage website. The Church’s teaching can generate innocent questions or outright animosity. Sometimes, the best response is delivered by those directly affected by the particular teaching at hand. Well-formed disciples with well-articulated stories illustrate the livability of a Christian sexual ethic.
The next time you consider your teaching or pastoral outreach in this area, consider reclaiming the compelling nature of story. Offer the power of witness!