12 October 2006

The golden age of evangelism

A flood of mixed news from American evangelicalism continues to tempt me into making my trademark overgeneralizations. Here's today's: we are entering a golden age of evangelism.

What, I don't miss the good old days? No, not at all. For example, I don't get overly misty-eyed over the founding of the United States. It is true, as John Gunther says, that our country was "deliberately founded on a good idea." And that good--brilliant--idea of democracy is undermined whenever we substitute sentimental patriotism for the clear-eyed and persistent labor of insisting that those founding ideals be honored far better than they have been so far.

We began this country, remember, thinking that some of us were only worth 3/5 of others and that most of us were not entitled to vote. Church attendance was far lower proportionally than it is now, and the nation's elite may well have been more unitarian than Christian. Domestic violence and addictions were to be concealed, not healed. Executions (not to mention lynchings) were once public events.

As for the church, too often it traded on privilege instead of the urgent merit of its message. The first book that really helped me see this was Douglas John Hall's The Reality of the Gospel and the Unreality of the Churches, published over thirty years ago. As society's automatic support of institutional piety has continued to wane, too often the voices of the Christian establishment are heard complaining about loss of status instead of considering the advantage of being unentangled from societal power. Maybe now we have a chance to evangelize people who, not having been inoculated by the gospel of respectability, are more available for real faith.

According to a current e-mail campaign, Northwest Yearly Meeting Friends (and many other evangelicals) are being urged by the American Family Association to protest NBC's presentation of a program in November by the pop star Madonna. As the AFA's Action Alert says, "NBC, Madonna Set to Mock the Crucifixion of Christ." This headline is followed by what sounds like a reasonable, even plaintive, request: "Help send one million emails asking NBC to show Christians the same respect they show other religions."

My reactions to this request are complicated. Might it be true that Christians don't get the same respect as other religions? If so, what might be the reason? I wonder if there's an intuitive calculation going on in much of society: maybe we perceive religions as having both a Godward face (which we become aware of through glimpses of their devotional practices, personal disciplines, scriptures, and to some extent, their missions, charities, and so on) and a social/political face oriented toward their neighbors and the larger society. Briefly put, perhaps Christians have low credibility because the general public sees so much more effort put into our social/political face--our demands to be respected, to be influential--than into our Godward face.

Os Guinness made a related point in this 1998 interview:
I remember when I was in Australia, speaking on modernity, a visiting Japanese CEO came up to me and said, "When I meet a Buddhist monk, I meet a holy man in touch with another world. When I meet a Western missionary, I meet a manager who is only in touch with the world I know." You could say today that many, many Christians are atheists unawares; they are implicit, practicing atheists because they are so secular in their consciousness. So we have words like prayer, supernatural, revival, but we don't actually operate in the world named by those words. To live with the spiritual disciplines opening us up to another reality, to other powers and other dimensions, cracks secularization very powerfully.
To make an unauthorized connection between my observation and Guinness's, the secular world has figured out that we Christians are actually operating in their world, all pious pretenses aside, and therefore does not give us the respect or deference we might think we and our symbols are due.

Are they right? Let's think: Wildmon is asking us to protest one program on a television network that is part of an industry delivering a profitable mix of information (a bit), drama (a bit), crass bathroom-level gratification (a lot), violence (a lot), and the culture of affluence (nearly all the time), to the very audiences who are now supposed to protest against one specific excess. Maybe the secular observer of all this is wondering, why are Christians watching any of this? Why do Christians even care about what NBC broadcasts?

Let's go one step further. As one Northwest Yearly Meeting pastor, Stan Thornburg, said in response to the AFA e-mail campaign,
I'm appalled beyond belief that this is what is garnering the alarm of American Christians.

With tens of thousands of innocent (let me emphasize innocent) civilians being slaughtered in Iraq, tens of thousands of innocent people being raped, displaced, murdered in Darfur, unimaginable suffering in the Middle East, TV Evangelists ripping millions out of the hands of seniors citizens, all kinds of suffering supposedly in the name of Christ and what do I get all upset about...MADONNA?! A pagan who mocks Christ for a living? What else would we expect from her? Where is the outrage because CHRISTIANS ARE MOCKING CHRIST? Where are the emails pleading with our "Christian government" to stop arms shipments to Israel, to cease and desist from their 'terrorist' practices in the world. My goodness, friends, what have we become?

By all means, let's turn our TV off, let's register our complaints against NBC, let's not neglect to be good and responsible citizens. We can do that in five minutes and get on with life as usual.

But if we are willing to spend five minutes on that, how about focusing our outrage on what is really breaking God's heart. "You Shall Not Misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name."?

Don, this is not an attack on you personally, it is just a cry of dispair over the relative silence of so many Evangelicals over the unbelievable atrocities that are committed in the name of Christianity in comparison to their reaction to the antics of some hollywood entertainer.
Maybe it is just a pious fantasy, but if we Christians were as passionate about the mistreatment of actual human beings, including those outside the church, as we are about our symbols and the loss of our privileged place in Western society, maybe our Godward face would have more credibility in this world.

It's wrong to oversimplify just to make a point, however valid. Donald Wildmon and the AFA have a specific calling, and it may not be to challenge American policy in Iraq. Fair enough. (They certainly criticize more than just one television program. Their website reveals their involvement in the conservative side of the evangelical establishment, but their critics are often equally enmeshed in other alliances that have just as little tolerance for genuine dialogue.) But are Wildmon's colleagues in the leadership circles of conservative Christianity equally persistent against flagrant abuse of actual human beings at home and abroad?

Nothing could be better for evangelism than for evangelicals to acknowledge that society no longer gives us a free pass, and get over it. That free pass was never completely honest, anyway; even Karl Rove allegedly has contempt for his evangelical allies. It used to be that foreign tourists were allowed to visit such Kremlin sites as Lenin's tomb ahead of the Russians who had been waiting to get inside; now we have to wait in the same lines. More bother for us, maybe, but less grumbling from the rest of the line. In the unsentimental post-Christian world, it's no longer an advantage to be citizens of another Kingdom; we actually have to make our case to our neighbors one at a time.

What are the features of this new social reality that make it such a promising arena for evangelism? More about that soon .........

(Part two: a conversation with Alan Rutherford.)

Righteous links

Is this true? "Every woman longs for three things: to be swept up into a romance, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to be the Beauty of the story." According to a review by Christianity Today's always-readable Agnieszka Tennant of the book Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge, this "finicky femininity" doesn't speak to her condition, at least not any more.

For more on the "4% doctrine" (referring to Ron Luce's alarm bell, "where are the evangelical teenagers?", which I mentioned two posts ago), see these thoughts from Ben Witherington.

And more on the Amish school tragedy: Donald B. Kraybill explains Christian forgiveness to Philadelphia Inquirer readers.

Sean Guillory (Sean's Russia Blog) goes book shopping in Moscow and comes up with a fascinating haul. (Example: Encyclopedia of Banality: Soviet Everyday Life: Contours, Symbols, Signs.) I spent my month in or near Elektrostal and my relatively meager haul of books doesn't quite measure up. Aside from books I needed for teaching, I picked up just one item: satirist Mikhail Zadornov's This Mad, Mad, Mad World. (I'd just seen him on television explaining that "Russia is a democracy [pause] under the management of the KGB.") Here's a sample from the back cover of the book:
I've just recently figured out why for centuries, for generations, we've lived such an uncomfortable life. We Slavic peoples have been given a supreme mission on this earth: to preserve life on this planet after the world ends!

For example, after any cataclysmic event, Western people simply won't survive. Naturally, there will be no money after the end of the world. How can Westerners possibly live without money? But it's all the same to us! We've lived that way before, and we'll do it again.
Russian readers: More excerpts here.

Friday PS:
Anya's farewell. Scroll down for pictures from Anna Politkovskaya's funeral.

"We're labeling you a terrorist." Here are fragments from her last article (with graphic pictures).


Unknown said...

Thanks for this one.

And BTW -- the "Like a Prayer" video was the only think madonna ever did I liked. And despite the furor over it -- it was the most Christian message I have seen in a music video. Though I must admit -- I don't watch music videos much so may have missed stuff. Louis Armstrong just never got around to doing vids.

Johan Maurer said...

I am so out of touch with the music video world that I couldn't begin to comment. However, I am still peeved about the protests over The Last Temptation of Christ, which was absolutely not the scandalous attack on Christ that protesters represented it as being.