Monday, May 26, 2008

I’ve been formulating this entry for a while as I pondered how to get it off my chest.
By and large, American Christian Culture is disconnected from reality and in some respects, downright creepy. Yes, it's creepy. Downright weird. A mockery of that which we are re-born to proclaim.

It doesn't take long to see that our faith is lampooned in the media. The Simpsons (which I enjoy immensely) feature an evangelical Christian family led by patriarch Ned Flanders, who frankly makes me wince, as his noodly-doodly portrayal makes us wince when he comes out with such gems as he prays, "Lord, forgive me for the impure thoughts that I had about the girl on the raisin box." His children Rod and Todd are portrayed as robots incapable of generating a creative or original thought. Wife Maude is quoted saying that "I went to Bible Camp to learn to be more judgemental."

Laugh or cry, it demands a response, because this is how the media portrays us, as innocent but wacky Kool-Aid-guzzling weirdos proclaiming a faith that makes no sense, devoid of relevance. In some respects, they're right. Our faith would much rather imitate the world, rather than coming up with an original idea. I found a parallel rant from this blog:

People like Coldplay? Then let's find a band that sounds exactly like Coldplay, but injects Christian words and themes throughout their lyrics. Doesn't matter if they are unable to match the musical ability, creativity, and vocals of Coldplay. They remind people of Coldplay, and they sing about Christian stuff.

People like video games with violence? Then let's make a violent video game about the end times. We can slaughter enemies of the kingdom in the name of Jesus.

People like brand name t-shirts? Then let's slightly change the wording of the t-shirt to have a Christian theme.

To a world watching what we do, how we present ourselves, and how we function and communicate, Christians tend to come across more like a Disembodied Hand than they do an Easy Button. We've shortchanged the church by bypassing the difficult, yet so necessary creative/inventive/innovate process and instead we've chosen to rip off popular culture. With one hand we wag our finger, condemning popular culture for it's debauchery. With the other, we pick its pocket. And the result is a disembodied hand that looks downright strange to a culture we're trying to impact.

Are we really THAT weird? Disconnected from reality? Certainly, we've been called to be different, not participating in the evil practices of the world. But weird to the point that it alienates us from the rest of the world that we're supposed to be reaching?

I was dumbfounded when I read an article in Rolling Stone titled "Jesus Made me Puke," by Matt Taibbi. His article is an excoriating, embarrassing exposee on a Christian retreat that's beyond weird. A nonbeliever himself, he posed as a seeker and attended a weekend experience that is beyond strange. Granted, the practices that he experienced are way beyond the norm, but they are, I feel, how nonbelievers see us when we are in our element. He says,

When most Americans think of the Christian right, they think of scenes from television — great halls full of perfectly groomed people in pale suits and light-colored dresses, smiling and happy and full of the Holy Spirit, robotically singing hymns at the behest of some squeaky-clean pastor with a baritone voice and impossible hair. We don't get to see the utterly bats**t world they live in, when the cameras are turned off and their pastors are not afraid of saying the really dumb stuff, for fear of it turning up on CNN. In American evangelical Christianity, in other words, there's a ready-for-prime-time stage act — toned down and lip-synced to match a set of PG lyrics that won't scare the advertisers — and then there's the real party backstage, where the spiritual hair really gets let down. I was about to go backstage, to personally take part in the indoctrination process for a major Southern evangelical church. Waiting to board the bus for the Encounter Weekend, I had visions of some charismatic ranch-land Jesus, stoned on beer and the Caligula director's cut and too drunk late at night to chase after the minor children, hauling me into a barn for an in-the-hay shortcut to truth and freedom. Ridiculous, of course, but I really was afraid, mostly of my own ignorance and prejudices. I had never been to something like this before, and I didn't know how to act. I badly wanted to be invisible.
What followed is something that every believer needs to read. It's an embarrassing indictment of our practices and faith (even if we don't go to the extremes that this encounter reaches).

He nails the typical Christian male:

My disguise was modeled on other men I'd seen in church — pane glasses and the very gayest blue-and-white-striped Gap polo shirt I'd been able to find that afternoon. Buried on a clearance rack next to the underwear section in a nearby mall, the Gap shirt was one of those irritating throwbacks to the Meatballs/Seventies-summer-camp-geek look, but stripped of its sartorial irony, it really just screamed Friendless Loser! — so I bought it without hesitation and tried to match it with that sheepish, ashamed-to-have-a-penis look I had seen so many other young men wearing in church. With the glasses and a slouch I hoped I was at least in the ballpark of what I thought I needed to look like, which was a slow-moving hulk of confused, shipwrecked masculinity, flailing for an Answer.

He recounts his experience in a small-group breakout where he was forced to tell his life history. I admittedly doubled over in laughter at how ridiculously funny it was (and reminded me of a few small group life-sharing experiences from my days in campus ministry), but the sad thing is that his small group bought the story:

"Hello," I said, taking a deep breath. "My name is Matt. My father was an alcoholic circus clown who used to beat me with his oversize shoes."

The group twittered noticeably. Morgan's eyes opened to tea-saucer size.
I closed my own eyes and kept going, immediately realizing what a mistake I'd made. There was no way this story was going to fly. But there was no turning back.
"He'd be sitting there in his costume, sucking down a beer and watching television," I heard myself saying. "And then sometimes, even if I just walked in front of the TV, he'd pull off one of those big shoes and just, you know — whap!"
I looked around the table and saw three flatlined, plainly indifferent psyches plus one mildly unnerved Morgan staring back at me. I could tell that my coach and former soldier had been briefly possessed by the fear that a terrible joke was being played on his group. But then I actually saw him dismissing the thought — after all, who would do such a thing? I managed to tie up my confession with a tale about turning into a drug addict in my midtwenties — at least that much was true — and being startled into sobriety and religion after learning of my estranged clown father's passing from cirrhosis. It was a testament to how dysfunctional the group was that my story flew more or less without comment.

That said, I don't expect for the world to understand us. Viewing the meaning and power of the Cross is backwards and upside-down to unbelievers. They can't grasp it. They see us as pig-eyed, bigoted, narrow-minded robots who have been programmed to view the world with racist eyes. Taibbi concludes:

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to "be rational" or "set aside your religion" about such things as the Iraq War or other policy matters. Once you've made a journey like this — once you've gone this far — you are beyond suggestible. It's not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that's the issue. It's that once you've gotten to this place, you've left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you're thinking with muscles, not neurons.

When Peter (the Apostle, not Frampton) declared "that we were a peculiar people," he didn't mean wacked-out or creepy.

When I look at Jesus, he wasn't weird. He was certainly unconventional, but he did everything within the cultural context of the people that he wished to reach. Supernatural results followed him, but they drew people to God, rather than weird them out.

Maybe we've become disconnected from reality because we've become disconnected in some important way, from the Head of the body.


Big Doofus said...

Hello," I said, taking a deep breath. "My name is Matt. My father was an alcoholic circus clown who used to beat me with his oversize shoes...He'd be sitting there in his costume, sucking down a beer and watching television," I heard myself saying. "And then sometimes, even if I just walked in front of the TV, he'd pull off one of those big shoes and just, you know — whap!"

This is exactly how I became a believer. Sorry. I have to admit that I laughed quite a bit at this story. Is that wrong?

So, I'm not sure what to make of this. I've been sickened for years by the "Christian" versions of bands, songs, movies, t-shirts, diets, mints (I'm not making any of this up). We should simply be who we are. But we ARE the church and that will still make us look different and, perhaps, incredibly stupid to the rest of the world. However, I don't see the need to go out of my way to look "stupid" with my big dumb "Carmen" shirt.

I correct my kids when they say that one song or band is "Christian". I let them see and hear things that are contrary to what they believe--but only if we get to talk about it. Maybe that's it. We need to encourage Christians to use their brains and their creativity. It's all for the glory of God.

I know that Francis Schaeffer has taken on a beating on this blog, but I'll throw his name out there again. He was a champion of believers getting involved in the arts and using their brains.

Ok, now the rest of you can pile on me. That's been the norm here. Isn't that ironic?

Mr. E said...

Very interesting blog. We, as Christians, are not very original, but do we really have to be?

The message we are trying to get out to the world was very original when Jesus was around, but now it is just different.

We must be different from the rest of the world, that is true. God calls us to be so. But we don't have to be original! We just have to practice what we preach and be consistent in our beliefs. We may have to change our approach in passing the message of Grace along to others, but as long as we don't create our own original teachings in an effort to lead people to God, then we should be ok!

Anonymous said...

good stuff...i agree with big doofus...i get sick of the lack of creativity on behalf of the Christian culture - however I will say that Christians were the ones for years and years that led the way in the arts - it is really just a recent phenomena that the tables have turned...
I also wanted to comment that there must be a difference between us and the world - what should make us peculiar is holiness.
I am going to post a link to a sermon that I hope everyone will take the time to listen to - i was pretty floored. i shouldn't have been floored and that is what bothered me the most - it sure gets one thinking....
i miss monday nights -

Joe B said...

What makes us peculiar is holiness. And what exactly does holiness LOOK like has been the raging debate for centuries.

(Has someone been going at F Schaeffer and Doofie again?? I told you all to cut that out!)

For some reason I am reminded of a big choir that visited our church from a christian college. I was struck by what a nervous, timid looing group of males they were. The females were pretty normal. But I was thinking, holy cow, who are those girls supposed to date?

I can't deny that the christian-hater Matt has a point. But WHY does he have a point? Are we teaching our christians to be this way?

void77 said...

"Are we teaching our christians to be this way?"

That's a good question. Kind of a chicken and egg thing.

Does modern Christianity produce the stereotype?

Or does the pre-existing stereotype naturally gravitate towards modern Christianity?

(Of course the answer is "both," but what happens most?)


Joe B said...

"Maybe we've become disconnected from reality because we've become disconnected in some important way, from the Head of the body."

That is a brilliant quote. I missed it, buried as it was in the Tsyllable Tsunami. Long posts are hard to reply to for some reason. Great thoughts though.

Joe B said...

Great comment Voidicus Maximus. Kind of like, home schooling doesn't make you wierd, but it definitely attracts a certain kind of oddball.

Anonymous said...

hey thanks man... the Hansen family...or the Oddballs

scott said...

Interesting. I used to read Rolling Stone because it was interesting to see that point of view, but all of the writers seem to be so overtly anti-Christian, it became frustrating.

I had conflicting thoughts on the RS article. On one hand, it quaintly points out how weird many 21st century evangelical Christian "traditions" are in today's society. Plus, we've discussed previously how today's churches often seem to neuter men.

But I see one thing that bothers me, and it even bothers me about myself. I get defensive when I see the writer making fun of some Christians being geeky or weird. "If he only knew US," we think. "WE'RE cool. WE'RE hip and emergent." Yet that's so misguided. Steve Taylor nailed it well -- Jesus is for losers. We're wretched and in need of a savior, not a clothing makeover. Jesus may not have been wacked-out or creepy, but he WAS all about befriending the outsiders and the poor. If someone wants to rip on a Christian's clothing because it makes him look like a "friendless loser," I think it just makes the writer look shallow.

That being said, my question to everyone here is this: If current American evangelical Christianity is so disconnected, what do we DO about it? How do we change it?

These things bother me, but the issue with the media and the popular concept of Christianity is so far gone, I don't think there's much we can do about it. (Honestly, would writing a letter to the editor of RS *really* accomplish anything?) What we can do is to be the Christians WE know we are supposed to be. That may not change 100 million people's minds, but it could change a few dozen minds of the people we interact with.

Joe B said...

Yeah, that disconnect thing. You know I have a couple of friends you would describe as Signs and Wonders people. They are fabulous, but proudly bizarre. After hearing them say their thing, I always end up wanting to ask, ", what did all this have to do with Jesus Christ?" I would say the same for so much of what is alluded to in that article.

So what is this disconnect? Can it be that we have distorted the gospel from the original kingdom call into some strange teaching? Is it strange doctrine, or just strange practice?

Silence Dogood said...

Makes you wonder if the "proudly bizarre" people are being true to who God made them or chasing something just as dangerous as those who try to fit in with the "in" crowd - in each case they are trying to be something they are not. Some of the wierdest people I've been around have their "persona" fueled by those who think they are mysterious, bizarre, or ultra cool in a wierd sort of way....know what I mean?

Seems like sometimes "the Church" is far more welcoming to those who play the "I'm really different" card than those who may be more "mainstream" (think the athletic type in high school....the "Breakfast Club" dynamic ....
"You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain...and an athlete.....and a basket case...a princess.....and a criminal... Does that answer your question?... Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club."
- - you can substitute your own version of us as Christians.

- - SDG

Anonymous said...

See: Dick Staub's "The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite"

Reverend John Stott ("Basic Christianity") has said: "The great tragedy in the church today is that evangelicals are biblical but not contemporary, while liberals are contemporary but not biblical. We need faithfulness to the ancient word and sensitivity to the modern world."

Here's a quiz that attempts to be both contemporary and biblical:

D’oh! -- The Simpsons Bible Quiz
By David Buckna