Friday, 25 February 2011

Right diagnosis, wrong prescription

There is an interesting article in Christianity Today suggesting that it is time for Christians to reassess their perpetual outrage. The author, Christopher Hays, argues that many artists court attention by producing offensive material in the hope that people will respond and therefore generate valuable publicity. Hays rightly argues that Christians are too quick to react with outraged comment and this simply serves the purposes of those they attack:
To rise above the billowing waves of culture, the latter-day Voltaire need only to offend a small-but-vocal subset of Christians. But unlike Jonathan Edwards's angry God, the Christian culture rages ineffectually, merely providing sound bites for the familiar stories in the mainstream media.
By overreacting when some hack misrepresents the biblical story, however, we send the message that the misrepresentation is more surprising and controversial than the genuine article.
Though I think Hays’ gets the diagnosis right, that Christians too readily take offence and then take to the blog, Facebook page or tweet, I believe his prescription for the problem misses the mark. Hays’ argues that Christians should simply ignore the controversial:
A thought experiment: Imagine if every Christian leader who was invited to comment on the next Dan Brown book simply said, "Why are you calling about this? You know his books are fictional, they're boring to anyone informed, and they're kind of poorly written." No facts, no offense taken—no story.
While many Christians crave the catharsis of rebuttal, a passage from Proverbs balances this sentiment against the wisdom of stoical restraint: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes" (26:4-5).
While this might be a good response for some attention seekers, I want to argue for a more creative response. Not to protest and condemn, nor to ignore, but to positively engage with the controversy. Take Philip Pullman whose novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Hays specifically cites. When the book was published Christians reacted creatively by reviewing the book and noting it’s strengths and weaknesses. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s review of the book is a good example of this more positive approach and is more powerful for its measured tone. ++Rowan has been happy to discuss Pullman’s Dark Materials work with the author, taking the opportunity to respectfully challenge the caricature of Christianity presented by Pullman. In fact, it was in response to ++Rowan’s observation that the church in Pullman’s trilogy had no Jesus and cross that Pullman wrote The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

For several years I have been involved with colleagues in running a series of courses reflecting on how Christians engage with controversial portrayals of Christianity and Jesus. We have sought to explore the opportunities afforded by engagement rather than protest. Partly this is because many Christians in their swiftness to react have missed the point; the Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ are a couple of notable examples we examine. Primarily we are keen to show how the more controversial works raise issues and questions that give the church a tremendous opportunity to engage and witness. When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code came to the screen many churches used it as an opportunity to invite people to explore the claims made by the film and to present an alternative understanding of the issues, including the nature of the gospels, the formation of the canon of scripture and early church history.

So yes, Christians should be slower to react with predictable outrage. But rather than ignore the controversies, I would encourage Christians to engage with the issues raised and explore creatively alternative responses.


UKViewer said...

Thanks for drawing my attention to this article and your well thought out response.

I think your prognosis is the right one, sometimes we appear to protest to much.

Engaging with those who produce the controversy appears to be an excellent way of bringing it into the public domain for discussion and thought, without hysterics.

All we need to do now is to convince those who protest so loudly in our name.

Gurdur said...

Sounds good, but misses one huge aspect.

Bluntly, Christians have been picking fights, and that over things which they magnified out of all proportion. And that for decades and centuries.

Example: the continuing saga about gays. Gays are and always have been a very small minority, yet Christians have made a huge deal about gays seeking civil rights.

Now, a civil partnership is quite often very important to gay pairs -- because of hospital (care in incapacity, visiting rights, etc,), death and other legal matters. You would think Christians who go on and on about "love" could at least understand love between gay partners, even if they thought being gay was wrong.

Nooooooo; instead, a great many Christians have gone on and on and on as if the legal recognition of gay partnerships would destroy society.

Christians have only been able to afford such melodrama (and it is no more than melodrama) only because gays are such a small minority; in the case of blacks, there were simply too many Africans and too many African-Americans (and people who supported civil rights for them) for Christians to go on supporting racism/apartheid etc.

Why, even the Southern Baptist Church apologised in the end, as did the Mormons.

But gays? They're so small, visible but without power, that pretending they were some huge anti-Christian deal was a really easy trick to pull off for Christians who wanted to use religion to mask authoritarianism, fear, and simple love of melodrama.

Your post is written as if Christians were the victims. No. The actual truth is, Christians have been very, very active in demonizing others ("cast not your pearls before swine", all the usual anti-atheist crap, all the hyperdramatic pretending Satan was standing behind every tree, under every bed, and behind any questioning of Christian authoritarianism at all).

Until Christians confront their group's (or, if you prefer, groups') tendency to often demonize others unfairly and without need, then Christians will simply be often caught flatfooted when others react by ridiculing Christians en masse. It may well be unfair, and it is often unfair how Christians can be ridiculed en masse, but hey, often enough the rest of us unbelievers have good memories of being attacked by Christians very damned unfairly indeed.

You as Christian groups need to deal with this. It's by no means as one-sided as you vaguely imply.

Philip Ritchie said...

Some interesting points Gurdur but I think you have missed the point of the post which is the way Christians react to controversial and what is perceived at times to be offensive art e.g. Jerry Springer the Opera.

You also make a basic mistake in your sweeping generalisations about Christians' and civil rights. You write as if there are no gay Christians and as if Christians have no knowledge of gay concerns. There are plenty of Christians who have supported the development of gay civil rights , including civil partnerships for gays, and not a few have entered into civil partnerships themselves.

Regarding the legal and pastoral implications of civil partnerships, many Christians are aware of the issues and clergy have often had to deal with the pastoral fall out of the concerns you have raised.

The introduction of civil partnerships raised many issues not only for Christians but for wider society and yet you write as if only Christians had concerns about this development and you dismiss engagement in this debate as mere melodrama. To speak of melodrama is to diminish the importance of the subject.

Unfortunately you make the same sweeping generalisations about Christians and racism, where again the situation is much more nuanced than you suggest. You will no doubt be aware of those heavily involved in the American civil rights movement who were Christians and those in the anti-apartheid movement who were also Christians.

My post isn't written as if Christians are victims and I have written before that we need to get out of such a defensive mentality. My point is that when Christians find something challenging they should creatively engage and not react from a default position of indignation.

Finally, I am not denying that Christians and the church have a great deal to repent about regarding the way we have behaved in the past or in some situations in the present. We do and therefore our engagement with issues needs to be from a position of humility and a recognition of our own failings.
However, to generalise about Christians in the way that you have in your comment undermine's your argument.

Gerrarrdus said...

I suspect that some Christians just like being outraged. People used to copy me in on lots of outraged emails about alleged blasphemous plays and films that either didn't exist or had been last seen 10 years previously on other continents. When I pointed out that (a) This was the case and (b) I don't agree with trying to get art banned just because I don't like it, they just stopped sending me them. I suspect they kept jumping up and down and sending the emails to others though.

Robert said...

I don't doubt for a moment that the church attracts people who get a thrill out of being publicly outraged; I've seen it many times. Some churches encourage it; it's supposed to be a 'strong witness', when in fact it's just some insecure so-and-so making themselves, and the church, look stupid. There's an unhealthy streak of narcissism there - and always has been, if comments in the Fathers about people attacking pagan temples to get themselves martyred are anything to go by. How we move on to something a bit healthier I don't know, but fortunately there are plenty of people in the church who don't indulge in these histrionics. perhaps we just need to stop pandering to it.