Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Culture, Compassion, and Compass: Responding to Anti-Christian Media

In a current Christianity Today article titled "When the Media Became a Nuisance," New Testament professor Darrel Bock offers helpful advice on how Christians can constructively respond to blockbuster books, documentaries, and motion pictures that challenge the truthfulness of the Christian faith. As he points out, a critical necessity is equipping:
Rather than seeing new media reports as conspiracies to rail against, why not see them as opportunities to discuss faith with friends and neighbors who will find them intriguing? Only we mustn't do so with an angry or dismissive tone. Rather, we ought to respectfully explain the historic Christian view. Becoming equipped for such discussions may require seminars organized by local churches. Imagine churches working together to help believers contend for the truth in their communities.
The reason Dr. Bock has to urge us to employ our imaginations to envision this kind of equipping is it happens so rarely. What a contrast this vision is to the several emails I've received urging me to boycott the film The Golden Compass. I'm sure those who circulate such missives mean well but hopefully we will not think that we are satisfying our calling to be redemptive agents in the world by trying to organize mass protests via the Internet. Clicking "forward" and "send" is certainly less time consuming and mentally taxing than the activity Darrel Bock commends but it is not nearly as effective in advancing God's kingdom.

Thinking about our propensity to opt for demonstrations over dialogues reminded me of lines I marked years ago in J. Daryl Charles's book, The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church's Moral Vision. In it, the author laments American evangelicalism's lack of a mature theology of public life and moral persuasion. Referring to Os Guinness's Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do About It, Charles writes:
Evangelicals, he notes, have frequently concentrated their efforts in domains that are peripheral to society rather than central. Correlatively, they have relied heavily on populist strengths and rhetoric rather than addressing "gatekeepers" of contemporary culture. Moreover, and critical to the viability of an evangelical social ethic, we have sought to change society through political and legal means rather than contending in the marketplace of ideas at the intellectual level. Thus, evangelicals have tended to rely on "a rhetoric of protest, pronouncement, and picketing" rather than on moral persuasion.
Johnson adds:
The relative inattention to winning a person's mind and way of thinking, an inattention that tends to depreciate a long-term strategy of building relationships and addressing moral-philosophical complexities, has lasting results that are counterproductive to evangelicals' mission to the world.
I intend to see The Golden Compass, not only because it looks like a spectacular piece of filmmaking (at least as far as special effects go), but because I want to be able to speak intelligently with the people around me who will see it. I also wish to speak compassionately.

In an excellent article titled "
Why We Can Neither Boycott nor Ignore 'The Golden Compass'" (HT: The Pearcey Report), David Dunham addresses this point, drawing lessons from Francis Schaeffer's evangelistic method which involved deconstructing a person's unbiblical worldview (a process Schaeffer referred to as "blowing the roof off"). Dunham notes Schaeffer's insistence that compassion accompany this activity, quoting from The God Who Is There:
These paintings, these poems, and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they live; yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.
Dunham adds:
That is probably the greatest lesson we can learn from Dr. Schaeffer. You can never share the gospel with someone whom you do not take seriously as a human being; and they will never want to listen to you if your words are not truth and compassion mixed together. There church, and individual Christians in particular, have over the past several centuries struggled greatly with this kind of evangelism. We have often found ourselves more interested in turning up our noses, mocking, belittling, and boycotting the culture, but Schaeffer would have us to find compassion for the culture. So he says, “As I push a man off his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care about him. Otherwise I will only end up destroying him…” We must have compassion.
Yes I am angry that Philip Pullman wants to “destroy Christianity!” But in his books (which have been adapted into a full length motion picture, released today) I also sense that there is a man who hates God, who is honest about it, and who needs the gospel. I will find in some of his major fans similar feelings of religious disdain. How I share the gospel with them will need to start with recognizing this factor and lovingly tearing down the worldview that supports it as I bring them the gospel. What Schaeffer does so well is to remind us that the culture is part of life, where people’s worldviews are expressed, and though we would often criticize and demean culture it can and should actually be part of how we do evangelism.
Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian is a good example of the kind of action those I've quoted above call for. He recently led discussions of Philip Pullman's trilogy at two local libraries. He has also assembled a list of informative posts he wrote while making his way through the books.

Yes, imagine. Imagine a day when emails calling believers to boycott expressions of unbelief are overwhelmingly outnumbered by invitations to learn how to thoughtfully engage those who produce and consume them. I know, it's a stretch. But imagine.


Tom G said...

Great insights, there, Keith. And I appreciate the encouragement at the end of your post.

The book discussions went well. Not many people came, but the ones who did--including library directors--could open the door for future opportunities to grow. And the talks were very lively and positive.

Was it you, Keith, who did the same thing a few months ago with The God Delusion?

KP said...

Thanks for the update, Tom. I'm glad to hear that things went well. Who knows what seeds were planted? And, as you say, the groundwork for future discussions may have been laid.

Yes, a friend of mine and I did something similar at our local library on Dawkins's book. That's one of the reasons I found news of your endeavors so encouraging. Please keep up the good work!

Sacchiel said...

If you see the movie tell me about it :)

Imago said...

A well-crafted post on an important topic. Some of your remarks remind me of points that John Mark Reynolds (of BIOLA/Torrey) made in a class on cultural apologetics.

I agree with much of what you said, but would tweak it by suggesting that most Christians do not need to contribute to the money-making machine behind books and movies that are aimed at attacking the Christian faith. So we can get the books second-hand (at the library or used) and skip the movie altogether (which Catholic screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi recommends); that way we can still confront the ideas, but also discourage them by investing our money elsewhere. There are some cases where Christians are functioning as critics, etc. where seeing the movie is important, but for most it is not.

In the case of Pullman's trilogy, I'm hoping to read it soon, but after I finish John Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.



dconnery2 said...

It would be helpful for individual churches to set up apologetics ministries that meet regularly and make use of gifted members of the body to teach how to respond not only to popular media offerings but also to the typical objections/questions posed by unbelievers and believers young in the faith.