Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The 'C' word

The inimitable Philip Yancey's got a thought-provoking essay out in Christianity Today. He is puzzled that the 'E' word spells terror and questions how Christians ended up in a parallel universe.
I went away from that discussion with my head spinning, just as sometimes happens at the university reading group. How can people who inhabit the same society have such different perceptions? More ominously, what have we evangelicals done to make Good News—the very meaning of the word evangelical—sound like such a threat?
I don’t think the ‘E’ word causes so much brouhaha here in Malaysia but it’s probably because ‘evangelical’ is such a formal word, hardly used in conversation. Journalists on the other hand, tend to equate evangelicals with fundamentalists and George W. Bush and not particularly in a good way. But mention ‘christian’ (or church) and you might get a reaction.

On that score I agree with Yancey that yes, people do have strange notions about who we are, what we believe, and how we live out our faith – even in a plural society like Malaysia. Aliens, that’s what we are. I once told a colleague who was having trouble with a co-worker that I would do my best to help patch things up but that there was a limit to what I could do. I also assured her that I would pray, at which point she burst out laughing - right there in the restaurant, her lunch barely contained in her mouth. Well, at least I wasn’t anathema, but you get my drift.

What do people think of Christians or Christianity? Here’re some of the things that have been told to my face:

They've after our money and they're always collecting money
I find that a terrible indictment. The shameless way that money is solicited (often in exchange for spiritual rewards or as a sign of spirituality) for building funds or something or other makes me nervous. During a local bible school graduation dinner I attended, it's founder was introduced to the 1000-odd guests as "the best offering taker" before he launched into a collection spiel. In another place at an 'evangelistic concert,' during which a painful plea for money was made, a teenager told us in a blasé tone of voice, “What do you expect, it’s the church.” Which wasn't exactly comforting. A friend was very blunt: “You all very rich. So many big churches. What you all do with the money, construct bigger churches and buildings?”

They’re do-gooders and oh so holy
People aren’t so much offended that we do good, but are cynical that we even believe it’s the right thing to do, or that by our deed think we're better than them. The inference really is that someone who doesn’t do the same or “act holy” is somehow tainted, and people do not in general like to be shown up for being ‘normal’ in an unchurched way. For instance, I would never give out a bribe if a cop asks and some people think that’s so dumb and inconvenient. Surely there’s some kind of ulterior motive? Usually if you keep it up - being 'nice' and all - you're seen as a wimp, a doormat, and absolutely naive about the way things work in the real world.

They’re always in church and have no time for their friends
This one gets to me. A lot of times recreational activities and outings take place during weekends. Due to commitments in church, that narrows down one’s availability to go on a weekend trip to Fraser’s, white-water rafting, an evening out on the town, or a campout. Meetings, meetings, meetings - and we're not talking about seminars, camps, conferences, missions, etc. You don’t get invited after awhile. On the other hand, we think nothing about inviting our friends to church functions and then wonder why they have no time for things of eternal consequence. Are there too many meetings in church and why should that be so?

They say those of us outside the church will go to hell
Well, not in polite company you don’t talk about hell. But get yourself into an involved religious conversation and it’s bound to come up. “So Christians are the only ones going to heaven? What kind of God is this?” David Wells in his book (God in the Wasteland) documents research on seminarians who in the majority share the good news but agree that the ‘bad news’ don’t get mentioned because it would be a turn-off. Wells wonders if this accommodation is a kind of sell-out to the therapeutic culture we inhabit. Paul advised against ‘underhanded’ ways to share the gospel, and surely the apostles didn’t mince their words, did they? But - pardon me - hell, many evangelists don’t even talk about ‘sin’ anymore in public meetings.

They’re all hypocrites
This one gets a lot of press. Admittedly we are hypocrites in varying degrees at various times, and I suppose it’s a painful reminder never to go about with a self-righteous air. Think of cars with Jesus stickers breaking speed limits or beating the red lights. Getting past the hypocrisy objection to the person of Jesus is not easy. Earning the right to be heard is often said to be the way forward. Someone said once that we can’t stop people from finding fault or pointing fingers, but we ought to live so they can’t pin anything on us. Then again, does that mean we wait till we are uhm, more ‘holy’ before we earn the right to speak up for our faith?

They’re like the talibans
This one came up in a conversation about Iraq and George Bush. The bile at the mention of Bush (spit)! What can I say? The friends who brought this up saw Michael Moore’s infamous movie and were convinced the religious right in the US were no different than the abovementioned Talibans. After all, they’re imposing their jaundiced views on everyone, and see where it’s taken the world?

Yancey’s closing words that “it is possible for the church to gain a nation and in the process lose the kingdom” is food for thought. Although it’s written in an American context, I can see applications for churches who fight battles (with good intentions, no less) but lose the war. It’s silly to expect non-believers to see things our way. Then again, it doesn’t make sense to adopt an unbeliever’s point of view just so we can get a hearing. Or does it?

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