The Folly of Answering Fools
From beach novels (The Da Vinci Code) to photography (Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ") to video games (keep reading), Christian outrage and criticism have helped lift numerous works up from obscurity—and made household names of their creators. It's time to reassess.
I groaned upon reading a friend's recent Facebook update promising a review of the latest scandal-courting pop-fiction rewrite of the life of Jesus, Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In our pop-cultural world, getting noticed is by far the most difficult feat. Any author who monitors his or her Amazon sales rankings can attest as much. Blogs and tweets and vanity presses—which once were supposed to empower the talented but voiceless—have instead created a cacophony from which scarcely any influential voices emerge.
One easy way for an author to break out is to offend Christians—easier, apparently, than writing something beautiful or profound. Literary merit cannot explain the meteoric rise of mediocrities like Dan Brown. Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) called Brown's novels "the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese," and each of The Da Vinci Code's predecessors sold fewer than 10,000 copies.
To rise above the billowing waves of culture, the latter-day Voltaire need only to offend a small-but-vocal subset of Christians. But unlike Jonathan Edwards's angry God, the Christian culture rages ineffectually, merely providing sound bites for the familiar stories in the mainstream media. And when it comes to book sales, all press really is good press. The video-game maker Electronic Arts even staged a faux Christian protest at a convention to promote its game based on Dante's Inferno. Apparently if Christians hate it, it must be worth a look.
Authors are certainly aware of the manifold blessings of being condemned. Pullman, also the author of the His Dark Materials series, expressed palpable disappointment in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald: "I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak. I'm a great fan of J. K. Rowling, but the people—mainly from America's Bible Belt—who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven't got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God."
The Really Controversial
A thought experiment: Imagine if every Christian leader who was invited to comment on the next Dan Brown book simply said, "Why are you calling about this? You know his books are fictional, they're boring to anyone informed, and they're kind of poorly written." No facts, no offense taken—no story.
While many Christians crave the catharsis of rebuttal, a passage from Proverbs balances this sentiment against the wisdom of stoical restraint: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes" (26:4-5). In this eternal struggle, I believe some Christian intellectuals have strayed too far to the side of answering.
Catapulting the wrong people to fame and fortune is only part of the problem. It would be naïve to think that we could purify our culture by keeping mum on a few scandal-mongering books and movies. By overreacting when some hack misrepresents the biblical story, however, we send the message that the misrepresentation is more surprising and controversial than the genuine article.