In preparing for the lead role in a movie about Padre Pio (an Italian Franciscan friar later canonized as a saint), the actor Shia LaBeouf, best known for Transformers, lived for a time in a monastery, submitted to several spiritual mentors, and then converted to Catholicism. His recent conversation with Bishop Robert Barron goes in many directions—acting philosophy and techniques, the opposition Pio faced from the Catholic Church of his day, and the appeal of the Christian faith in the 21st century.
A couple comments from this interview made headlines. LaBeouf talked about his surprise at how wrong the commonplace image of Jesus is: a man “soft, fragile, all-loving, all-listening but no ferocity.” The Jesus of the New Testament is vastly more compelling as a prophet and king.
Appeal of the Ancient
LaBeouf also revealed that Mel Gibson had introduced him to the Latin Mass—the traditional form of the Catholic liturgy, now observed only in certain places and circumstances (and recently limited further by Pope Francis). To LaBeouf, the Latin Mass felt like being let in on “a secret,” a mysterious experience more powerful than the ordinary rites in English where, he lamented, he felt like someone was “trying to sell [him] on an idea.” He thought the preaching seemed too casual: “[A call to] let your hair down right before you’re asking me to fully believe that we’re about to walk through the death of Christ.”
What’s interesting is how LaBeouf explains his attraction to the traditional form of the Mass—it’s not about the recipient. The focus isn’t on the worshiper. It’s simply there. It must be encountered on its own terms, and its incomprehensible language is part of its appeal because it leaves the worshiper with a sense of the sacred. “I can’t argue the word,” he says, “because I don’t know what the word means, so I’m just left with this feeling.”
The Church Trying to ‘Sell Me Something’
There’s much to unpack in this interview: What should we make of celebrity conversion stories? What are the theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism on the Lord’s Supper? Why do we insist on the supreme authority of God’s Word over church tradition?
We could also look at how people in our day often search for a feeling of transcendence, where the specifics of doctrine or “the words” aren’t as important as the experience of something sacred, something that breaks through what Charles Taylor calls “the buffered self.” In LaBeouf’s case, this desire seems to have led to a full-blown embrace of Catholicism, but for many others, the result is a life where the individual remains in control, in pursuit of “personal authenticity,” with religious experience sprinkled on top, appreciated for the way it adds a transcendent dimension to a life lived, largely, without God.
Instead of going in these directions, I want to zero in on the statement LaBeouf makes about the Latin Mass and his distaste for worship services where it feels like the church leaders are trying to sell him something. LaBeouf is attracted to something that deliberately and distinctively does not cater to his whims or desires. He finds the Latin Mass appealing precisely because it’s not what we evangelicals might call “seeker sensitive.”
What can we learn from this conversation?
First, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of immersion into the Christian community. Yes, we need to be equipped as evangelists who can share the gospel with people in everyday conversations. Otherwise we’d miss people who would never step over the threshold into a church. But the church, when gathered to worship the King of kings, is a demonstration and display of the power of the gospel. To usher people into this alternative community, to experience the otherworldliness of our worship and the hearing of the Word—there is no substitute for the community of faith in the evangelistic process. Invite people in. Invite people often.
Second, there’s a difference between seeker-comprehensible and seeker-driven. I think LaBeouf has competing desires that get a bit muddled here. On the one hand, he’s turned off by services that seem overly focused on the seeker, on the individual’s experience, or by services where it feels like the leader is just trying to sell you on an idea. He finds appealing the service that doesn’t cater to the tastes or whims of the worshiper.
On the other hand, he goes so far as to prefer an incomprehensible language so he can focus on the feeling. Which, in a weird way, can become its own version of catering to a whim. This is a sticking point not only between pre– and post–Vatican II Catholics but also going back to the days of the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, Tyndale—they were right to stress the need for Christian truth to be presented in the vernacular.
The feeling is not the goal; the encounter with the Living God is what we’re after, and the feelings may (or may not) follow from that. And so, as evangelical Protestants, we must insist: the presentation of the Word must be comprehensible—yes, even to the seeker in our midst—while not driven by the felt needs of the seeker. LaBeouf is right to revolt against a service that’s centered on man rather than on God. But in preferring the incomprehensible so that he captures a feeling, there’s the possibility he’s turning the Latin Mass back into something man-centered, as it delivers a feeling and meets a need because of its austerity.
Third, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of Christian teaching in its essentials, and we must not downplay the significance of Christian doctrine. This is the heart behind my book The Thrill of Orthodoxy. (By the way, if you’d like early access, please consider joining the launch team.) Orthodoxy is real and massive. It is there. It’s a force to be reckoned with. It creates feelings and experiences precisely because it’s not about our feelings and experiences. It’s about God.
For this reason, our worship shouldn’t shy away from the weird. If there is nothing otherworldly in our worship, why are we even there?
In the interview, Barron acknowledges that preaching in the Catholic Church took a wrong turn in previous decades, as priests often prioritized sharing individual religious experiences over explaining the text of Scripture. Instead, Barron says, “the Bible is much more interesting than [his] experience”—the goal isn’t to fit the Bible into our lives but to see our lives swept up into the story of the Bible. There’s a lesson there for Protestant preaching too.
The great adventure is not in adapting the Christian faith to better suit the needs of people but in adapting people who better fit the Christian faith. And this posture of submission is the outworking of humility that makes possible the adventure of discovering truth. Comprehensible to seekers, yes. Driven by human desire, no. The radically God-centered view at the heart of our faith is, in the end, not a barrier to evangelism; it’s what conversion is all about.
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