“The Church is a whore, and she is my mother.”
No one ever faulted Tony Campolo for mincing words. The above quote actually comes from St. Augustine, but was repeated by Campolo in the documentary film Lord, Save us From Your Followers.
A few nights ago, I watched Lord Save us from Your Followers with a group from my church. In the movie, Dan Merchant, the movie’s creator and narrator, travels across the country gathering people’s opinions about Christians and church. He talks to people on the street, pastors, as well as pundits from both the left and the right. At times funny and entertaining, it nevertheless is a serious attempt to get Christians to engage with the world in a more loving and compassionate way. It’s basically a film version of They Like Jesus but not the Church, or UnChristian.
There were some critiques Dan leveled that I agree with. First, in one part he pitted “young conservatives” vs a group of “liberal media elite” in a Family Feud-like game. The game was an attempt to see which group knew the beliefs and worldview of the other best. The liberals won easily. He then pitted a group of college age agnostics vs a group of college age Christians in the same game. This time, the Christians didn’t even score a single point.
The outcome was not surprising to me. In the small group discussion afterwards, a few commented on that part of the movie, saying that we Christians typically know what we believe but aren’t able to get outside our bubbles to engage with the beliefs of outside groups. I think that commentary was far too kind…most aren’t able to articulate the basics of the gospel without resorting to sloganeering! This is especially pronounced in youth, where fun, “just hanging out,” and entertainment dominate youth groups.
Second, I can sympathize with his critique of the polarization of political discourse in America. Lots of heat, very little light. In an age where ratings drive everything and short attention spans dominate the landscape, the mud slinging is standard fare. More of a circus act than an informative conversation characterized by mutual respect.
When Dan was focusing on this issue, I thought of a conservative radio show I used to podcast. The host is a very smart man with a law degree, and he is a big player when it comes to influencing public policy in our country. I respect the guy greatly, but I confess his radio show always left me disappointed. For starters, every podcast–and I mean EVERY podcast–featured a controversy that was sure to drastically alter the West for ages to come. It was as if every little Supreme Court hullabaloo was the beginning of the second coming. In addition, I was looking to actually be informed, but all the host did–for ONE FULL HOUR–was give “rah-rah” speeches intended to rally the troops. Very little actual analyzation of the controversy and examination of the detailed arguments of both sides. If I took the knowledge that I gained from that podcast and used it in a conversation with someone from an opposing view, I’d be out of luck within about 30 seconds.
All that to say: I sympathize with Dan when it comes to being dissatisfied with the nature of political discourse in the U.S.
I also am somewhat sympathetic in his critique of the Church. We’ve failed to love others as Jesus loves them. I’ve failed to love others as Jesus loves them. So tell me something new.
It is at this point, though, where my sympathies end. I can’t help but think that he has gone too far in his critique. There *is* a place for legitimate critique and exhortation of the Church, Christians in general, and me as an individual; otherwise, this blog in general and this post in particular would be out of bounds. We can always do better.
However, this movie is a small part of a very large trend; it is quite common fare to criticize the church and Christians for being unloving, narrow-minded, and intolerant, etc, etc. I hear apologies on behalf of Christians from the pulpit quite often. My pastor is very fond of doing that. On Facebook and in face to face conversations, my Christian friends will bag on Christians and the Church for being rigid and such. Books that critique the church–such as the ones mentioned above–are best sellers and the talk of the town. We’re frequently wringing our hands about the offense we’ve caused non-believers.
It seems like we just have this urge to self-flagellate and beat ourselves up. I have to wonder if it is healthy. Yes, we all need a good butt kickin from time to time, but need we dwell on our *image* so much?
Incidentally, that little word–image–is one reason why I think this trend is potentially unhealthy and askew. The majority of the focus centers on what others think of us. A good part of the movie, for instance, was showing the average person’s reaction to the question “what do you think about Christians?” All the answers were something like “narrow-minded, intolerant, stuffy, judgemental, condemning” etc. Then the narrator asked them, “what do you think about Jesus?” and the answers were, “loving, forgiving, caring,” etc. The conclusion we were supposed to reach was obvious.
An aside: to me, those interviews were meaningless. What if the narrator were to take out the Bible and read from Luke 9: 23-27, Luke 13: 22-30, or Revelation 19? Would they have such rosy words for THAT Jesus? The Jesus they showered such praise on was a Jesus made in their own image, not the Jesus of history and Scripture.
Its as if whenever someone says that about Christians–in other words, whenever someone is *offended* at what we say and do–we’re automatically in the wrong. Yes, sometimes we are in the wrong, but this seems more of a knee-jerk reaction than anything else to me. As one author has said, “the gospel is offensive. Don’t add any offense to it, but don’t remove any offense that is already there.”
There is one scene in the movie where the narrator takes a cue from Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and sets up a “confession booth” at a gay pride event. The catch is that those at the event aren’t the ones confessing: Dan himself confesses and apologizes for the wrongs Christians have done to gays and lesbians. He also apologizes for things he’s done, such as making gay jokes.
It was a novel idea, and it seemed like it got a positive response. Those watching the movie lauded the act as something incredibly courageous. I recognize that for some, apologizing comes hard. Not for everyone, though. After the event, my wife commented that for her, apologizing would be much, much easier than saying tough, yet loving words that someone might not want to hear. Why? The former would most likely gain her the good thoughts of others, whereas the latter might get her rejected.
I am not saying that it would have been appropriate for Dan to instead get up on a soapbox and read Romans 1. In that atmosphere, best to leave that one be. It’s just that I don’t know why everyone acts like moral disapproval, tough words about sin, etc are easy! Relatively few are going to reject you for doing things like giving out cups of water, saying “Jesus loves you,” and apologizing for past hurts…and those things are all the rage these days. Not that we shouldn’t do all that, but people like that stuff…they don’t like to hear that the path they have autonomously chosen is the path of destruction and rebellion. For Christians who want to be well liked (read: most of us), that makes it very tempting to cheer the nice stuff but shun the tough stuff.
I take it that we’re supposed to think that judging and condemning are bad things, and Christians should avoid them. At one point, Dan chides the church for turning the “gospel of love” into the “gospel of being right.” Love through your actions and use less words was the not-so-subtle message. “We’re all out of words,” as one commentator put it. The ‘ol phrase from St. Francis “preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary,” was bandied about (incidentally, St. Francis probably never said this. The guy was an evangelizing, fire-and-brimstone machine. The American church simply would not tolerate him today. It is more likely that the quote is a product of a sentimentalized, neutered, postmodern version of St. Francis. ).
The only way this image will improve significantly is if we focus on only grace, at the expense of truth. As long as Christians stay faithful to the biblical witness and the gospel, the world will continue to think we’re judgmental and all that stuff. Even if we are completely humble and loving, we can’t stay faithful to Christ and shed that image. As much as we’d like to forget it, talk of sin, God’s judgment, and condemnation of false beliefs are all over the Bible. Jesus thought He was right…that kinda comes along with the territory of claiming to be God, and for Christians who faithfully follow Christ, pointing to the “narrow road” also comes with the territory. Very hard to “Jeffersonize” those things out. In fact, the gospel doesn’t make sense apart from all that; why would Jesus die a horrendous death on a Roman torture device just to tell us that He loves us and that God has a wonderful plan for our lives? If there are more ways to God than through Jesus, why did Jesus have to die? The cross is more than just an example of God’s love; it is an objective cure to an actual spiritual/moral disease called sin. Take that out and the Christian faith is plain silliness.
Yes. We can love better (love sometimes requires tough words to be spoken–ever thought of that? Anyway); but we should just get used to our image being less than what we desire. A PR campaign will be the cure that kills the patient.
And on that phrase above: “we’re all out of words.” Really? Not even close. Read the book of Acts. Actions of service are a large part of that book, but do you know what is an even larger part? Good ‘ol straightforward proclamation. I sometimes get tired of saying this: it is not an either/or thing, but a both/and. The Church has excelled in the past on acts of service and proclamation, and we should continue to excel in both. The siren call of a better image should not sway us.
It is natural to want to be well-liked. But lets not let the tail wag the dog here.
And even though I share Dan’s concern with the polarized nature of political discourse, the one thing that is *not* a solution to that is for Christians to back out of the debates. Though he never said it verbatim, I get the feeling that he’d be ok with us just packing our bags, getting out of politics, and just doing simple service. Even if I misread him and he would not advocate that sort of response, I know plenty of Christians who would like nothing more than for us to get out of politics completely.
At the very least, politics and the discourse that comes along with it is seen as a less spiritual enterprise.
I am all for a more civil debate, but silence is not an option, whether it be abortion, embryonic stem cell research, same sex marriage, big government vs. small government, etc, for that would leave others vulnerable to false and harmful ideas. Those who have opposing ideas will keep on plugging their ideas and policies, and unopposed, those ideas will wreak incredible havoc.
Think of it this way: the last few years have seen the rise of strong and loving Christians entering the legal and political battles in foreign countries on efforts such as sex trafficking and child abuse. Many have fought tirelessly in courts and legislatures to ensure vulnerable women and children are protected by law. These legal and political battles can sometimes be nasty and intense. Would we even think about advising these folks to back away from political discourse and simply “love others with actions?” The thought is crazy, for we recognize the stakes.
It is no different here.
I frequently bring up these themes on this blog. I really don’t want to be that guy. It’s just that this “either/or” message gets preached a lot, and people simply eat it up. Every time I hear the so-called St. Francis quote said in church, it is followed by so many “mmmms,” and “amens.” We don’t really have to put one or the other (words/actions without words) on the backburner…nor should we, biblically. I’m attempting to bring some balance to the discussion. I heartily applaud Merchant’s exhortation to talk with non-believers, not at them, but we should be careful that we don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and let the pendulum swing to the opposite end. There is room for both grace and truth, and love sometimes means risking rejection by saying tough….words.