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....