Monday, April 28, 2014

Christians and the Media: Field Day

People who have not spent a great deal of time around serious Christians are often surprised, on the rare occasions when they finally do, to find that we are not always exactly the way we are frequently portrayed in popular culture.

Some Christians, notably Cory Copeland, a writer for Relevant, think any disconnect between the way we are portrayed in the media and the way we actually behave is … kind of our fault, actually.
“The truth is that there are some so-called Christians who quite closely mirror the Christian characters we watch on television and film. They’re loud and proud and angry in God. They stare down their “opponents” with judgmental eyes and damning language. They protest funerals and vomit epithets at people they’ve deemed sinners.                                                                        
And on some level, most of us are guilty of some of this type of behavior. Maybe not to those extremes, but we too judge, condemn and feel “better than,” while refusing to admit our own faults. For the more dogmatic Christians and for us, it doesn’t matter that how we behave, how we treat people, how void we are of love and grace is a direct and vicious contradiction of everything the Bible teaches us of God and His ways.”
Okay, so … Fred Phelps. Bit of a straw man, Cory.

Yes, he was a real person who protested funerals and “vomited epithets”. But Fred Phelps was an outlier, and I think most honest observers recognize that. To suggest that “on some level, most of us are guilty of some of this type of behavior” … well, I could agree with “some” or “many”, but “most” is a pretty encompassing term.

I think he’s wrong there.

And to allege that characteristically “we too judge, condemn and feel ‘better than,’ while refusing to admit our own faults” is a statement I can’t entirely find common ground with either. I’ve known many believers who are quick to admit their own faults (and much, much more aware of what constitutes a ‘fault’ than those who are not familiar with God’s standards).

In fact, I think it would be fair to say that, far from regularly engaging in spiritual schadenfreude, most believers of my acquaintance generally hold themselves to a significantly higher moral standard than they hold those around them.

Yes, of course there are exceptions. Exceptions that remain memorable because they are just that: exceptional.

Perhaps the problem is that Cory and I are using the word “Christians” in different senses. That is certainly a possibility.

When I read in Wikipedia that “According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) (2008) 76% of the American adult population identified themselves as Christians, with 51% professing attendance at a variety of churches that could be considered Protestant or unaffiliated, and 25% professing Catholic beliefs,” well, I have to confess that I find it hard to imagine that nation could be in its current state with three quarters of its population on their way to heaven.

Does that make sense to you? I mean, I’d love to think it’s true but I know it isn’t.

So, media, have a field day.

If 76% of Americans can be legitimately considered ‘Christian’, then I happily retract any disagreement with Cory and invite the media to go ahead, have a field day at our expense. You can probably find any sort of crazed religious lunatic in a sample that size to use as your typical Christian and really, who could argue?

But that sort of definition of ‘Christian’ is not, well … ‘Christian’, I’m sorry to say.

When the Lord talked about the kingdom of Heaven as it exists in this world, he made it very clear with a number of illustrations that the kingdom is a mixture of those who actually believe and a much larger number of those who merely profess to do so; whose ‘Christianity’ (though it would not have been known by that name in his time, of course) is bogus.

In the parable of the seed, only a fraction of the seed fell on good soil and produced fruit, but a significant number of seeds appeared to develop into thriving plants — until such time as they were choked by thorns, devoured by birds or withered by the scorching sun.

But meanwhile, they appeared just like the rest.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, “an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat” and the master commands, “Let both grow together until the harvest”. At harvest, the weeds (later described by the Lord specifically as “the sons of the evil one”) are gathered, bundled and burned. Not much difficulty drawing a conclusion about the fate of those who falsely profess belief in Christ from that.

But meanwhile, both grew “together”. From a distance, the crop looked much larger than it actually was.

In the parable of the mustard seed, the kingdom grows to the size of a great tree, and the “birds of the air” rest in its branches (interpretive hint: “birds” = “not good”; in the first parable, the birds represent the “evil one”).

So the kingdom on earth provides a convenient haven for evil but gives the appearance of growth and health. Hmm.

In the parable of the leaven, the kingdom of heaven is compared to leaven hidden in “three measures of flour”, until it was “all leavened”. Leaven used figuratively in Scripture is not generally symbolic of anything good. The Lord elsewhere uses leaven to depict religious hypocrisy, and immediately follows that explanation with the declaration that “nothing is covered up that will not be revealed”, very much echoing the message of the parables.

Doesn’t seem to bode well for the professing church, does it.

Come to think of it, it’s not all that surprising if serious, faithful believers are often misunderstood, mischaracterized and misrepresented. How could it be any other way?

For every calculating media type who thinks “Let’s create a false stereotype of Christian behavior to make Christianity less credible” there may well be five who look at the Crusades, the excesses of Catholicism or the pleas of money-grubbing televangelists and think, “That’s what they’re all like”.

I do think it might help the media, and people generally, to meet a few more genuine followers of Christ so they don’t feel such a pressing need to have a field day at our expense.

Make no mistake, the ongoing mischaracterization of Christianity is, as the Lord said, the work of an “enemy”. And there is another kind of ‘field day’ coming.

One day the wheat and the weeds will be separated and the harvest taken in.

1 comment :

  1. A paraphrase, if I may:

    "The truth is that there are some so-called agnostics and atheists who quite closely mirror the unbelieving characters we don't just watch on television and film but actually see in history. They’re loud and proud and angry at God. They don't just stare down their “opponents” with judgmental eyes and damning language; they indoctrinate or even kill millions in the name of Socialism or some other utopian vision. They protest righteousness, murder their babies and vomit epithets at people they’ve deemed illiberal."

    If someone wrote the above paragraph in a national magazine, is there any doubt that he'd be called out on it immediately? He'd be accused of lying, of bigortry and of tarring all agnostics and atheists by painting with too wide a brush. I would guarantee it.

    And yet, if you had to defend either Copeland's paragraph or the paraphrase I've offered, and to do so with reference to facts not media portrayals, which one would have clearer, more abundant evidence?

    In addition to the wheat field, there is a big, big field of nothing but weeds.