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.