The Violence of Evangelism

Why, exactly, does the word evangelism evoke such violent metaphors?
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Let the record show that, like right-thinking people everywhere, we have been alarmed by recent rumors of people being "beaten over the head with the Bible." We do not endorse, condone, or tolerate the use of the Bible as a blunt instrument. We are shocked at the thought of unwilling converts cowering in Christian churches all over the land, in fear of further beatings-about-the-head by their proselytizing Christian neighbors. These assaults must stop at once.

Furthermore, given the unmistakable overtones of violence that accompany the loud thumping of the Bible, whether with one's hand or upon a nearby table or pulpit, we urge all Christians to immediately cease being Bible thumpers. Become Bible wavers, or, better still, simply leave your Bibles at home, preferably secured with child-protective locks.

Now it's true that no one I know has actually seen someone being literally beaten over the head with the Bible. But bring up the topic of evangelism, among Christians or non-Christians, and it will not be long before this dire scenario is invoked and heads solemnly nod in dismay. When I joined an ecumenical coalition of university chaplains a few years ago, the one substantive commitment I was required to make was to avoid "proselytizing," the only sin upon which our religiously diverse group could agree. I'm sure that adultery would have raised a few eyebrows, but proselytizing would get you thrown off the campus in a jiffy.

I only witnessed one act of aggressive proselytizing in my nine years on that campus, and it took place in the genteel confines of the chaplains' office, no less. Only moments after we were first introduced—and long before he learned anything about my convictions—the secular humanist chaplain accosted me, asking leading questions along the lines of, "Don't you think that creationist fundamentalists are dangerous, obscurantist fools?" He did not have a copy of Stephen Jay Gould's writings handy, but if he had I am sure he would have been at least waving, if not thumping, it. The encounter was uncomfortable, even a bit intimidating, but it was also somewhat refreshing.

If evangelical Protestants ever did beat people over the head with their Bibles, that era has long since passed. A commitment to evangelism, indeed, has taken many in exactly the opposite direction, to the creation of entire church environments designed with excruciating attention to the needs and tastes of irreligious people. At some of America's most evangelistically active churches, you would be hard put to find a Bible to thump. Surely no one is worried about being beaten over the head with a PowerPoint slide, though I suppose one of those projectors could hurt.

Even those of us not trying to be "seeker-targeted" are often preoccupied with the goal so vividly articulated by Bill Hybels of WillowCreek Community Church "to create a safe place for a very dangerous message." It is among evangelicals, in fact, that I have most often heard cautionary warnings about Bible-over-the-head beatings. Whatever we're doing, we're certainly not doing that.

Why, exactly, does the word evangelism evoke such violent metaphors?

It's hard to avoid putting some of the blame on the nature of consumer culture itself. Participating in the world of consumption requires relentless attention to surfaces—since surfaces are what consumer goods, from whitening toothpaste to remote-controlled lawnmowers, can change. And to grease the wheels of commerce as much as possible, the corollary of attention to surface is a determined indifference to everything that lies below. About the deepest things in life, consumer culture advises, don't ask, don't tell.

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