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.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ken Myers on Incarnational Living and Cell Phone Usage

I can't think of any ministry fund-raising letters I enjoy reading more than those from Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. The reason why is because unlike so many communications soliciting financial support, Ken's correspondence does not consist of glowing reports of ministry successes, manipulative emotional ploys, and dire pleas for large sums of money. Honest communication of ministry expenses is accompanied by appeals to those who appreciate the value of what the folks at Mars Hill Audio are doing but this is done tastefully and with respect. Each letter also contains thought-provoking reflections from Ken that invariably lead me to further ponder the beauty, profundity, and integrity of God's creative and redeeming activity in Christ.

I received one of those letters yesterday in which Ken made the following observations about the implications of God, the Son, assuming human nature:

More than just a logical precondition for the Atonement, the Incarnation also establishes the trajectory for our new life as a truly human life. There is a theological link between confidence in the full humanity of Jesus and a recognition of the ramifications of our salvation across the full range of our own humanity, across all of the ways in which we engage God's creation.

Much of modern culture, with its Gnostic undertones, alienates us from creation and its givenness. Theologian Colin Gunton sees the affirmation of the Incarnation as essential to our enthusiastic participation in creation and therefore in cultural life. "A world that owes its origin to a God who makes it with direct reference to one who was to become incarnate -- part of the world -- is a world that is a proper place for human beings to use their senses, minds and imaginations, and to expect that they will not be wholly deceived in doing so."

Christians have the only account of human and natural origins that can give cultural life meaning. But even after 2,000 years of opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation, many contemporary Christians persist in believing in a Gnostic salvation, a salvation that has no cultural consequences. In such a dualistic understanding, our souls are saved, the essential immaterial aspect of our being is made right with God, but the actions of our bodies -- what we actually do in space and time -- are a matter of indifference if not futility. Salvation is an inward matter only. It affects our attitudes and some of our ideas. But insofar as our cultural activities have any Christian significance it is as mere marketing efforts -- things we do to attract others to our essentially Gnostic salvation.

Believing in a gospel that has few earthly consequences is, ironically, just the sort of state our secularist neighbors would wish us to sustain. They, too, are dualists, believing that religion may be a fine thing for people, so long as they keep it private. Their secularism isn't threatened by Christians as long as they aren't too "Incarnational." As long as the cultural lives of Christians aren't significantly different from those of materialists and pagans, secularism is safe. Christians may pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," but as long as they don't actually do anything that demonstrates how such a petition should affect their political, economic, and cultural activities, the Enlightenment legacy is safe.
Of course, calls for the lifestyles of Christ's followers to be markedly different from those of their unbelieving peers are not uncommon. Unfortunately, what is all too uncommon is the kind of theological reasoning to which Myers appeals. How frequently do we consider, let alone discuss, the implications of our confession that the Word became flesh for the routines, practices, and relations that we consider mundane and of little consequence? Of the three areas Ken mentions - politics, economics, and cultural activity - I think many believers have given at least some thought to how our faith should affect our decisions in the first two perhaps because the ethical dimensions of politics and economics are more apparent. However, when it comes to cultural activity in general, I think our efforts are largely limited to figuring out what is OK or not for us as Christians to participate in. Certainly, there is need to give thought to such things for we are commanded to "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them" (Eph. 5:11) which requires being able to identify such deeds. But what of the countless seemingly innocuous activities that occupy so much of our time? Is there a particularly Christian or "incarnational" way to engage in them?

I searched on Mars Hill Audio's printable files in hope that they had posted the letter from which I quoted above. Unfortunately, they haven't. However, while there, I did come across an article Ken Myers wrote for the Dallas Morning News titled "How Would Jesus Call?" in which he makes the following claim with which I fully agree:

With few exceptions, religious people have not given enough thoughtful attention to the social and cultural consequences of emerging technologies. When technical devices are used for obviously immoral purposes (e.g., pornography on the Internet), Christians express concern. But church leaders and theologians give far too little attention to the subtle ways in which technologies reshape our lives and thereby re-configure our moral understanding of the world.

Technologies are usually developed to make a particular task more convenient, and convenience is valuable. But it is not the only valuable thing, and it is up to individuals and communities to determine when an increased level of convenience is actually a hindrance to other human values.
Myers goes on to make a plea for incarnational cell phone usage:

Cell phones, for example, make it easier for us to have immediate access to others and to remain perpetually accessible. But certainly there are times when cell phones should be turned off or left at home. Some restaurants now require guests to disable their cell phones while dining. This shows respect for the ambience of their dining rooms and honors the desire of other diners not to be forced into the role of eavesdropper.
I'd like to suggest that Christian people in particular give some attention to cell phone etiquette. A thoughtful set of manners regarding cell phones could be a small but significant way of reducing the sum total of dehumanizing behavior in American culture. Such manners could demonstrate the high value Christians place on embodiment, expressed in our doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection.
What could cell phones possibly have to do with the Incarnation? Both involve the significance of physical, embodied presence before others. The presence of another person before us is a kind of moral claim, asking for the recognition appropriate to a fellow human being. Likewise, when we make ourselves present to others, we are showing respect. Thus when we visit someone in the hospital or in prison (a situation Jesus alludes to in Matthew 25) instead of just phoning or sending flowers, we demonstrate by our presence a higher level of regard for their well-being.
The idea of presence is an important one in Biblical religion. In his second letter, the Apostle John writes, "I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face." The Church is called the ekklesia, the assembly, the place where believers are present to one another to encourage one another to love and good works.
By contrast, holding a telephone conversation while walking down the street or up an aisle at the supermarket pointedly ignores the presence of others. The importance of physical presence is thus de-valued. It also poses a kind of challenge to passers-by.
I wouldn't be surprised if some believers initially reacted to this line of thought negatively, considering it too theological, theoretical, and/or picayune. But I suspect that if that is our reaction, it is because we are not accustomed to being challenged to think and live in a manner that is thoroughly and consistently Christ-centered.

By the way, the latest volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal arrived in today's mail. I'm a happy man!