By Derek Penwell
Driving to work not long ago, I pulled up behind a blue Ford Fusion. Nice enough car. I happened to glance at the license plate holder, which read: “I retired from Ford. I still drive one.” Looking at the big dent in the fender, it occurred to me to add: “but not particularly well.”
Then I got to thinking: “I don’t imagine Ford much appreciates that kind of publicity, no matter how well intended.”
Who would? Nobody wants to be identified solely by their fans. The Who don’t want to be too closely identified with the enthusiasts in Cincinnati, who trampled 11 people to death trying to get into a general admission concert in 1979.
That’s the thought that popped into my mind yesterday as I had a conversation with my fifteen year-old son, the skeptic. He, like so many in his generation, is a voracious consumer of media. As a consequence, his exposure to popular Christianity is largely negative. Most of what he sees portrayed on Reddit and YouTube are the dolts and wingnuts who tend to trample saner depictions of the faith in a stampede to be noticed by a voracious public that feeds on doltishness and wingnuttery.
As a consequence, many of his heroes are the (usually sarcastic) people willing to call out slobbering reductionism when they see it. Many of his heroes are actively agnostic, if not atheist. He loves to see the dented fenders of the faith lampooned.
We had a conversation yesterday, however, in which he said something that meant a great deal to me. A documentary done by New Atheist icon, Richard Dawkins—who, interestingly enough, my son thinks is guilty of much of the same fundamentalist enthusiasm as the people he ridicules—came up on Netflix. After making disparaging remarks about Dawkins, he said: “You know, I’ve noticed something: when they do these documentaries on the shortcomings of Christianity, they don’t ever show the kind of Christianity you talk about.”
My first reaction was: “Boom!” And as tempting as it would be to write with glowing self-referentialism about “my faith,” I won’t, for a couple of reasons:
- You deserve better than that.
- There’s a larger point to be made about the contrast between popular Christianity—as it’s usually portrayed—and following Jesus, which apparently isn’t bizarre enough to get its own show on TLC.
So, I said to my son: “The irony is, I wouldn’t want to defend the Christianity by which the New Atheists are so outraged. I’m outraged by it, too.”
A common assumption in our culture is that James Dobson holds the Christian position with respect to gay people; that if it comes out of the perpetually smiling mouth of Joel Osteen, it’s gospel; that if the American Family Association asserts it, the rest of Christianity is simply awaiting its marching orders.
Fortunately, the popular conception of Christianity isn’t Christianity. Unfortunately, apparently most people don’t know that.
Here’s my problem: I’m tired of having to do all the heavy lifting of trying to follow Jesus, while at the same time trying to live down the bad publicity generated by his most vocal followers.
I’m willing to acknowledge that I sound like a petulant jerk when I say this. But I spend so much time around young people (university students) who think they already know everything they need to know about Christianity because they have a concerned aunt who spends her evenings forwarding interesting “news” stories from the 700 Club about why, if there is global warning, it’s because Barack Obama is heading up a secret one world government cabal determined to kill Christians and stay one step ahead of the Great Tribulation.
I get tired.
When I teach about the Q’uran in my World Religions course, I highlight the sacredness of the words. That’s right, according to Islam, the words themselves are sacred, having within them vestiges of the divine power of the one God who revealed them. As a consequence, one is only supposed to recite the Q’uran in a purified state, because the words are so powerful the person takes on a heavy responsibility.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
I say, “Well, it’s sort of like the commandment about taking “‘the name of the LORD your God in vain.’ What does that mean?”
“It means you’re not supposed to say ‘goddammit.’”
“I know that’s probably what you were taught, but it means something even more scary than that. It means, that if you claim the identity conferred by God’s name, you bear an amazingly heavy responsibility.”
More blank stares.
“Let me put it this way: I have known plumbers who, because of their crappy work, regularly take the name of plumber in vain. I’ve known university professors who take the name of “university professor” in vain. Same with ‘preachers,’ ‘doctors,’ and ‘McDonalds cashiers.’ The point is that if you take on a certain identity, you have assumed an enormous responsibility for living up to that identity. In other words, if you’re going to be a Muslim, a Jew, Hindu, a Buddhist, a Christian, you’d better be sure that your devotion is more than bumper sticker deep.” [note: Special thanks to my old professor, Newton Fowler, for this insight.]
People are watching … and not necessarily the people you’re worried about either.
How about this:
- Why not be just as concerned about finding ways to feed the 16.7 million American children who, through no fault of their own, live in homes that are never sure there’s going to be food on the table, than about sparing the rich from paying more taxes?1
- Why not be just as vocal about the impact of divorce on the institution of marriage (about which Jesus had a great deal to say) as about the impact of same gender marriage (about which Jesus had nothing to say)?2
- Why not express a concern about the potentially deteriorative effect of American consumerism on faith, instead of trying to baptize American consumerism by putting crosses and Jesus fish on merchandise and calling them “Christian?”3
- How about a hat tip to the ideals of pacifism (something about which Jesus had a great deal to say), rather than feverishly working to preserve the rights of people to own assault rifles for the purposes of armed conflict (about which Jesus spoke no words that could be considered consolation to the armed)?4
In other words:
- Why not worry about living your life so that it makes a positive impression on those who don’t believe what you believe, instead of trying to impress those who already share your convictions?
I’ve got a fifteen year-old son who’s watching … and he’s got friends. They are all over dented fenders.
- I realize that this is a conflation of Evangelicalism and Republican politics, a generalization that doesn’t hold across the board. However, I think my assertion of the relationship between the two is true enough across a broad spectrum to withstand scrutiny. ↩
- “Born again Christians are more likely to disapprove of homosexuality than divorce” (Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, 94). ↩
- According to the CBA, the Association for Christian Retail: “Nearly 12% of Americans spend more than $50 a month on religious products, and another 11% spend $25 to $29, according to a national survey of 1,721 adults by Baylor University. One in three Americans surveyed made at least one purchase in a Christian bookstore in 2005, says Baylor sociologist Jerry Park. They’re buying books, music, DVDs, toys, gifts, home decor and “witness wear” such as jewelry, T-shirts and more.” What exactly is communicated by the “witness” these folks are “wearing?” WWJD? Buy stuff, it would seem. ↩
- Conflation again, I know. It is interesting to note, however, that according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Survey, only 8% of White Evangelical Christians polled thought that the most important thing that could be done to prevent mass shootings in the United States was “stricter gun control laws and enforcement,” as opposed to 36% who thought the answer was putting “more emphasis on God and morality in school and society.” ↩