Why don’t they like us?
“I used to be a Christian, but then I became a forensic pathologist.” So says a colleague of detective Kurt Wallander, main character in a dark gritty British television series bearing his name. The unstated subtext of his comment is, of course, that he can’t believe in a God who allows the criminal horrors a pathologist has to deal with. His words are yet another example of the huge chasm that many people believe exists between Christianity and the facts on the ground. There’s another undercurrent of meaning in the comment, namely, “I don’t like a God who lets atrocities happen and does nothing about them.”
Another meme in mainstream media is that religion is responsible for most of the wars and bloodletting in the world, historical realities notwithstanding. People who tend toward atheism like to point this out; the language they use often sounds like they are blaming a God they say they don’t believe in.
Canadian media often confuse any expression of Christianity with cultism, whose adherents they relegate to the Canadian lunatic fringe: weird, but harmless, like the folks who think God placed dinosaur bones in Drumheller Alberta for no reason that they can understand.
The real failure
So, is Christianity in North America under siege? Many Christians seem to think so, and perhaps we have just cause. But being seen as an irrelevant institution is more serious than being under siege, because then nobody cares much what your particular church has to say, sometimes not even your own (especially younger) members.
Be that as it may, there is an additional issue at stake here: When we think of ourselves as getting a bad rap from the media and academia and elsewhere, we are in danger of demonizing these parts of society, and exonerating ourselves of responsibility for the image we have. Of course, it’s not a matter of creating a positive image so that we can attract more people to our churches; we’ve done that kind of window dressing and it doesn’t work. (The fine little book by David Kinnaman, You Lost Me, makes that point very well.) It’s a matter of obedience to the rule of Christ, i.e. the rule of love and humility. That’s where I believe we tend to fail, time and again, corporately and in our personal lives. We would do well to focus our attention on such failures when they occur, and try to do better. Focusing on what’s wrong with the beliefs and practices of people “out there” who aren’t like ourselves puts churches on an isolated moral and theological high ground, and it’s freezing up there.
By the time Courier subscribers are reading this issue, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church will be meeting. One of the major items for discussion will be whether our gay and transgendered brothers and sisters are fit to participate fully in the life of the church, or have the right to be married there. A few decades ago the big item was whether women were fit to be fully functioning members. Scripture is cited ad infinitum on either side of the issues. In a world where misguided terrorists roam the globe, where millions live in fear and poverty, where the rich and powerful pillage the earth, and the destitution of the poor is considered merely collateral damage, doesn’t our concern with which Christians are in and which are out of our church communion seem a bit trivial? What if we dared to err (if that’s what our thinking is) on the side of inclusion? Then we could just get on with tackling the other issues together. Wouldn’t that help us be more relevant in the lives of more people?
And what if we could learn to build bridges of understanding rather than walls of exclusivity between ourselves and the rest of society? Wouldn’t that allow us more opportunities to witness to the love of Christ? We don’t need to be afraid: the Gospel is powerful; the Spirit protects and guides us.
Many years ago I was part of a church group studying world religions. When it was time to investigate Islam, someone suggested that we visit the local mosque and ask for a session with the Imam in order to get some first-hand experience of what Islam was like. The suggestion was immediately and decisively rejected. We missed a bridge-building opportunity that week.
I am currently tutoring a Syrian Muslim family, and I drive the children to school two days a week. I am embarrassed to say that I have never been inside our local mosque, and have little idea what goes on there. But I am learning through the enthusiastic accounts the little girls give me about what they do there on Fridays. I also know that the parents are charming, hospitable and tremendously grateful to the Christian churches who have sponsored them. When the time comes, I will ask them about their beliefs, and then I will have a chance to tell them about mine. They may never become Christians, but I leave that up to the God who loves them as surely as he loves me.
Our strength is not in our isolation; it is in total and passionate engagement with a world Christ loves and died to save. The pathologist’s view in Wallander notwithstanding, the Gospel has everything to do with the facts on the ground – all of them, everywhere, and it is never irrelevant or silly, though our representation of it may be.