Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Meditations of an Ex-Protester Protesting Evangelical Protester-ism

Wow. What a dorky title. For some people it will come across as too academic. For others it will look oxy-moronic, since I have referred to myself as an "ex-protester" but have told you up front that I am, in fact, protesting by writing this blog post. For others still, it just sounds dorky. I think I'm in the latter category, myself.

("Mama Schrag, please feel free to let me know how dorky it is.")

Before I explain what this blog post is about, let me quickly note what it is not about. First of all, this is not a "coming out" post, admitting to all readers that I am a liberal. To think so is just not true. I am not theologically liberal nor do I agree with everything on the liberal political platform either (although they sometimes have some good points to make).

This post is also not about evangelical Protestantism, as a distinctive, historical movement within Christianity. Much has been said, could be said, and, hopefully, will continue to be said about how much of what passes for contemporary evangelical thinking is far from the theology of the Protestant Reformation. But this post is not specifically about that either (although some may find some indirect correlations). Maybe another day.

No. This post is about "Protester-ism," a word that I either made up or heard someone else use and thought was cool enough to steal. I'm not sure which, yet. I have thought about trying to define this word, but have chosen not to. Hopefully you will get the picture of what it is after you read the rest of the post. If not, please post a comment.

As a youth pastor, I believe that part of my job is to keep up on what is going on in culture. This is accomplished in a lot of ways. One of those ways is reading movie reviews written by Christians and non-Christians. One site that I look at occasionally is http://www.pluggedinonline.org/, a site maintained by Focus on the Family for the purpose of reviewing movies, books, TV shows, and other media.

On December 17, 2007, I logged on to that site and found that the folks at Focus on the Family had taken a poll of their readership. The poll sought to measure the evangelical community's response to the recent movie, "The Golden Compass," based on the book by Philip Pullman. Much of the evangelical community has been up in arms lately (especially Focus on the Family) over this book because of its purported anti-God theme. Evidently, the main characters in the story are led to believe that the best course of action at the end of the movie is "to kill God." (To me, the idea of killing God is hardly offensive, simply because of how non-sensical it sounds. It's like calling a square a circle, or saying that two plus two equals seven. I think that it is an idea so absurd that we should not choose to dignify it with anger). (For more, read Focus on the Family's review of this movie at http://www.pluggedinonline.com/thisweekonly/a0003516.cfm, accessed last on January 15, 2008).

The poll that pluggedinonline took read like this:

Your family's approach to "The Golden Compass:"

We will avoid it because of its messages: 70%

We will avoid it because we're not interested: 14%

We'll see it and discuss its messages: 8%

We'll see it; it's just another fantasy movie: 8%

Now, the results of that poll bother me. Let me tell you why. This poll bothers me, not because I think every Christian has a responsibility to see "The Golden Compass." I think that the 14% who don't want to see it simply because they're not interested in the genre or the story-line are perfectly justified in choosing not to spend their money to see the movie, just as any one of us may not choose to pay to see an opera, a hockey game, or some other form of entertainment that fails to capture our interest. The numbers that bother me in this poll are the 8% at the very bottom and especially the 70% at the top.

The 8% at the bottom bother me because they fail to take into account the fact that every movie, book, piece of music, and TV show has some kind of a point. These forms of media are the dominant art-forms of our day and art forms communicate messages....always. Even if your piece of art is going out of the way to not communicate a clear message, that, in itself, is a message. You're simply communicating that you're tired of making serious points with your art and that pure entertainment is somehow more important at the moment. Like it or not, that is a serious message that carries serious implications. Communication always happens--sometimes even by those trying not to communicate at all. We need to get used to it. We need to start engaging our culture by learning how to interpret their messages. We need to stop leaving it to our pastor or favorite Christian author. We need to learn to do it ourselves, as well. It's not just the job of Christian leaders and theologians to look at cultural messages through a biblical grid. It is the job of Christians. We will never evangelize or minister to a culture we refuse to talk to.

The 70% of the poll-takers at the top bothered me the most. They bother me for the same reason as the 8% mentioned above, only their position has even greater weaknesses, in my opinion. These weaknesses go far deeper than the decision to watch "The Golden Compass." In all actuality, I don't really care who sees the movie and who doesn't. I am much more concerned with the heart-attitudes and the wrong-headed theology that is represented by the "Evangelical Protester-ism" of the 70%.

The thinking of the 70% is that the best way to change culture (including the film industry, in this instance) is to protest. If we just create another wall, another strong tower in our own evangelical sub-culture, and we all climb to the top of that wall, look down on those bad film makers and tell them that they are naughty, we will have done our Christian duty. And what better way to tell them that they are naughty than to keep from giving them our money? In fact, if we go and see the movie, and give them our money, doesn't that make us naughty?

One problem with this thinking and strategy is that we don't (and really, can't) apply it across the board. How many Christians will keep from buying a movie ticket to a film that they wish to protest but will turn around and spend a lot more money at Gap, Target, Wal-Mart, JC Penny's, and a whole host of other franchises that support all kinds of social agendas with which we disagree? If I buy some gas at Chevron, take out a loan at Bank of America, buy a hamburger at Sonic, or sell something on eBay, does that mean that I support these companies and their decision to support Planned Parenthood? (see http://www.fightpp.org/ for more; accessed on January 15, 2008). I don' think so. I think it just means that I want a hamburger or that I want a low-interest loan on my house.

And I'm pretty sure that Sonic, although feeding me a hamburger and keeping me alive another day, doesn't think that they're actively supporting a pro-life youth pastor, either.

Unless we're all willing to be Amish (and I'm not), we're probably going to have to realize that our money just has to go to people that don't look at the world the way we do. No where is this more obvious than paying our taxes to our secular government. But...wait...didn't Paul tell me to pay taxes? Yeah. He did (Rom. 13:1-5).

Another problem represented by the thinking of the 70% is the belief that we are somehow doing our Christian duty by protesting. Why are we surprised when a reportedly agnostic person, like Philip Pullman, declares that he hates Christianity? Do we really not believe our Bibles? Christ and His disciples told us over and over again that the world will hate us, because it hated Christ first (Matt. 10:22; 24:9; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; John 7:7; 15:18; 17:14).

The real problem is not that the world hates us. The real problem is that we hate them. When we tell them that we are not willing to listen to their ideas, that we are not interested in engaging them in conversation, that we are not willing to be their friends in any capacity, and that we really are only willing to love people who are already like us and who live in our little evangelical sub-cultures, we are sending the world a message that sounds much more like hate than Christian love. When we turn to "Evangelical Protester-ism" as our chosen method of engaging our culture, we have chosen a method that poorly represents the core of our faith.

Yes, as Focus on the Family points out, Pullman hates C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia." Why? I don't know for sure. I've never spoken to Pullman, myself. Maybe he hates talking Lions. Maybe he hates trees that can move and maybe he really likes winter instead of spring. Or maybe he really doesn't like the message of the Gospel.

But I really wonder if he has truly been given the opportunity to hate the Gospel. I say this because the message he hears through the evangelical community that refuses to have anything to do with his book or his movie is definitely not the message of the Gospel. Call that message whatever you want. But we don't dare call it the Gospel. Maybe Pullman does hate evangelicals. But I doubt he hates us for the same reason that Christ said the world will hate us. And that should shame us.

Don't get me wrong. I really don't care whether you go see the movie or not. This blog really isn't about "The Golden Compass." If you were led to think it was, up to this point, I apologize. I haven't communicated clearly, then. What I care about is that we learn to listen to the culture. Not because I think they have found a way to God or because their sources of truth are better, more "edgy," more hip, or more accurate than the eternal, God-breathed words of Scripture. I think we should learn to listen to them for the same reason anyone decides to listen to someone else. We should listen to them because it is how you show love. We should listen to them so that when we engage their ideas in conversation or debate, we actually know what we're talking about.

And if we are scared that watching "The Golden Compass" or an episode of Oprah will ship-wreck our faith and make us want to kill God, then we really need to question whether we are Christians in the first place....or at least whether the pastors we listen to and the books we read are written by Christian leaders who love us enough to help us understand our faith and take us deeper in our relationships with Christ instead of just selling us pop-psychology, self-help for a price.

Have I seen "The Golden Compass"? No. No I haven't.

But if you have, I would love to hear your impressions and interpretations of it.

More on protesting "Evangelical Protester-ism" later....


Greg said...

John, This post was outstanding! It really struck me in the heart. I have always felt that all the protesting was somehow wrong. (I don't know if wrong is the correct word or not but it has always felt wrong.) I don't recall Jesus ever leading a protest, He did what I think you are advocating here: He loved people and SHOWED them the way, and truth, and life which meant spending time with them and, maybe, just maybe, even listening to them.
Thanks for a most insightful posting!
(By the way we have met once for about five minutes. You and your wife were candidating there in Heston and my family and I were visiting the Holmes for the weekend! I'm so glad you were hired!)

John Buerger said...

Thanks for your very encouraging comment, Greg. It is important for all of us, I think, to learn that we can listen to others without having to agree with them; but that we can show love and respect, even in the midst of disagreement. I will look forward to reading your blog as well.

stephen e. buerger said...

you really put into words what i have been feeling lately but haven't been sure how to express. one of my biggest beefs with Christians right now is just as you said. we expect those who don't serve our Lord to (for whatever reason) act like we do, think like we do, and hold the same standards we do. WE are the ones being transformed. THEY are the ones living in the bondage from which we have come.

shouldn't that give us mercy and compassion?

John Buerger said...


I completely agree. When we communicate to the non-Christian world that we expect them to act and think like us in order to have fellowship with us, we are not preaching a message of grace, but a message of condemnation.
It is one thing to tell someone that he must believe what God has revealed in the Gospel to be saved. It is another to tell them that they must believe as we do in order for us to love them. Once we communicate that message, we have changed the definition of Christian love; a definition which includes the Father giving His Son on behalf of those who were still His enemies...namely, us.

Mom said...

The title isn't dorky! I didn't even understand it! But I think I did actually understand what you were saying this time in your deep theological world! And I'm pretty sure I agree!

John Buerger said...


Thanks for the encouragement. It really does encourage me that you took the time to read it.

The title means that I, someone who used to agree with protesting everything in the non-Christian culture that I disagree with, is now writing a post in which I am showing disagreement (I am protesting) with that very position. In other words, I have changed my own views.

Protester-ism is the word I have chosen to use to refer to evangelicals who think that protesting is the best way to send a message to our culture on everything. In this case, the issue is movies.

Regardless, I still think the title is dorky.

Kayla Vernise said...

i have been meaning to leave a comment for sometime and didn't really know what i wanted to say. i thought of something...
every fall this retired pastor comes to campus. he yells at the punk kid that he is going to hell, he yells at the soroity girl that she is going to hell, he yells at the Christians that they are going to hell unless they stop going to KU because by attending this university we are associating ourselves with homosexuality, drinking, and sex that apparently, in his mind, represents KU. What does all this yelling accomplish? Well, he gets eggs thrown at him and spit at. Other than that...nothing.
The day he comes to campus is the day I usually cry. People hate him, and i don't blame them. I sort of do as well. He has turned away some people so sharply that they will never consider Christianity because of the anti-Christian things that he said to them in the name of Christianity.
I say this all because i want to thank you for your words. Word.

John Buerger said...

Thank you for your story, Kayla. Yeah, I would definitely disassociate myself from that guy ASAP. He's representing something, but it's not the Gospel. Unfortunately, the poor man probably thinks he's some kind of a martyr for getting eggs thrown at him when, in reality, he deserves it.

When it comes to making a public demonstration to our non-Christian culture, especially on a college campus, I'm not sure that I've heard of a better example than Donald Miller's story in "Blue Like Jazz." I loved it when he and some friends set up a confessional where they proceeded to apologize for the ways in which Christians have been hypocritical to non-believers who were brave enough to investigate. Great story.

The world really wouldn't know what to do with a group of Christians that demonstrated humility.

Sometimes, I'm not sure what I would do either.

Beverly said...

Hello John,
I enjoyed this post. I came to your blog from your colleague Greg's blog and, as I scrolled down through your posts, this was the post that really caught me. I really connected with it. I suppose that if any label were to be attached to me it could be "liberal" and, "theological liberal." That said, I don't think labels are very useful. In fact, much of the time, I find them to be profoundly un-useful. In the church I grew up in there was a big campaign to keep people from viewing The Last Temptation of Christ. I remember the pastor standing at the shaking-hands door, asking my mother and me (a high schooler at the time) if we were planning to sign a petition against it.

I am finding from my own experience that we don't tend to give or receive a lot of love when we're afraid or angry. That said, God's love is real and God's presence is real. I had to smile as I read your post. Thank you.

John Buerger said...


Thank you for your comment. I am intrigued that you referred to yourself as "theologically liberal," although I understand what you mean by not liking labels too much. But I have to ask: what does it mean to you to be "theologically liberal"?

Beverly said...

Weeeeellll, I'm really not trying to put myself way out there; I value my relationships with a wide variety of people way too much to alienate myself by saying, "This is where I stand and I'm not budging." I did that in my twenties and I don't think it sowed too many seeds of kindness in the world or in my circle of relations. I guess what I mean about probably being a theological liberal is that I spend most of my time wading in the stream of people I guess some folks would consider to be theological liberals...not that I read a whole lot of theology at the moment. But John Cobb, Sallie McFague and Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza were theologians/biblical scholars I read in seminary. My husband and mother and in-laws read Gordon Kaufman, and I have been influenced by their reading of him. I have been informed by these thinkers and, subtly, many others. I think some from backgrounds other than mine might consider them to be "liberal." If anybody's looking for some stimulating, very (I think) conciliatory reading, I would suggest two more favorites: Douglas John Hall and Walter Wink. In a nutshell, John, I guess I'm saying that I want to respect where people are and not say things to alienate them from me. I really, really value relationships. I also recognize myself to be rooted and grounded in the Bible and informed by biblical scholars and theologians who expand my understanding of God and the universe and ask me questions that make me wonder.

Thank you for this lively forum for discussion!

John Buerger said...


Thanks for your reply. I appreciate your willingness to "put yourself out there" a little bit. :)

That's what I wanted my blog to be, when I created the sub-title "A place of peace and journey towards truth."

I want people to feel free to say what they think, even if it is in disagreement with others, and yet do it with respect and kindness. I guess I want to avoid two errors. The first is the idea that we all must agree on everything to get along. That's impossible, and it really isn't Christian either. The second error I want to avoid is the idea that we must not allow our opposing viewpoints to be heard because it is inherently hateful and disunifying to do so. This also is not true, especially since any so-called unity achieved through this method is false and artificial...which is not true unity at all.

Instead, I want people to feel like they can voice their ideas, even if they are in disagreement, and not feel any fear of being dis-respected by others. I hope you feel that way when you comment on this blog.

Thanks again for your interaction.