“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
It’s a phrase from the Gospel that we don’t hear a lot about. Well, maybe you do, but I certainly can’t recall having heard very many homilies on those words from Matthew 10:16. I don’t know if it’s because no one wants to preach on it or if it’s a reading that doesn’t come up on Sundays all that often, but it seems to me to be generally overlooked. Except at JP Catholic. In fact, I’ve heard professors refer to these words in class more than once, and the one time I did hear a homily on them, it was delivered by our philosophy professor, Fr. Andy Younan. The context is usually something like this: If we are to impact culture for Christ, we have to be – as Jesus, sending out his disciples “like sheep among wolves,” exhorts – wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
The parallel is clear, I think. Jesus was sending the disciples to preach the Gospel news in towns that would not be all that welcoming to their message. JP Catholic is sending students to carry out the New Evangelization in industries that, if they take any interest in the Gospel message at all, probably treat it with hostility and disdain. We will be sheep among wolves.
Okay, so the sheep need to also be serpents and doves. Right.
Let’s skip the wise part for a moment and talk about innocence – easier to digest, I think. It seems a little obvious, maybe, that if we are going to preach the Gospel message, we had better be living it. If we are scandalizing people with our behavior, we lose any credibility for spreading truth. There’s a great book out there by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian. In it, Kinnaman and Lyons survey hundreds of non-believers about their perceptions of Christians. One of the most common perceptions that they discovered was the idea that Christians are hypocrites. Now, we can argue until pigs sprout wings that human nature is fallen and all men are sinners and of course they can’t expect us to be perfect. But that, I think, is an evasion. Our response should not be to blame their perception but to figure out how we can be less hypocritical. True, we are all sinners and no one is perfect, but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for our behavior. We should always be striving – and begging God for the grace because we can’t do it alone – to become more like Christ. We get in our own way when we preach innocence without living it.
Innocence, then, is really more like a prerequisite to preaching the Gospel. So then, once we figure the innocence part out, we can work on being wise.
Here, I have to make a confession: trying to be wise as a serpent scares me a little. After all, the serpent from Scripture we most often hear about is the devil, and it’s his wisdom, his cunning that seduces man to his Fall. Do I really want to imitate that?
Well, that’s why we worked on being innocent, remember? And we can’t let our guard down. It’s not a once-you-learn-it-you-do-it-perfectly-every-time kind of thing. Holiness is always a work in progress. Now if we are only concerned with being wise and neglect the innocent bit, we will probably persuade ourselves and our friends to do some pretty nasty things – and we all know what Jesus says about people who cause others to sin (see Matt 18:6 if you don’t). Yikes.
But why do we need to be wise as a serpent at all? Can’t we just let our innocence speak for itself?
That attitude, I think, dominates the world of Christian media. I fall into it all the time. We have a tendency to think that because our message is good and true and beautiful, it doesn’t really matter how we send it. We convince ourselves that people will just get it because our movie doesn’t show any of the bad stuff. People will see how appealing a nice little Christian life is, so much more appealing than all that poisonous junk that Hollywood is spewing onto our culture.
But that attitude is wrong – at least insofar as one hopes to impact culture. And it’s a little bit dishonest – the Christian life is actually really hard. The only people who will see that movie and see any attraction in it are the people who are already trying to live the Gospel message. The culture at large, on the other hand, will go see the poisonous junk that Hollywood is spewing – which, by the way, is probably contains less poison than you think, but that’s a discussion for other posts, like this one and this one.
Our goal as Christian filmmakers is to capture the culture’s attention without compromising our own innocence so that we can share truth with them. But in a society that gorges itself on sinfulness, how do we make the Gospel attractive?
That’s why we need to be wise as serpents.
If we don’t take care about how we send the message, the culture won’t even bother to listen. The innovation is not in the message itself, of course – the Gospel is what it is, and we really shouldn’t go around changing it – but in how we dress it, show it, word it, execute it, produce it. In the context of film, I think being wise or cunning encompasses more than just witty dialogue or a smart plot – it means excellence in every aspect of production. We can’t skimp on any part of the art if it’s going to captivate the audience. The cunning is in a film so well made that the audience can’t help but listen to its message.
That’s the cunning of Hollywood.
That’s what we have to compete with.