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.
In a recent survey published in USA Today, less than one-third of Americans between ages 18 and 29 reported having read the Bible—ever. The mistaken impression that the Bible is safe, boring, and slavishly in thrall to cultural norms probably accounts for much of this indifference.
Another thought experiment: Imagine if a journalist called a Christian leader to ask about Brown's latest Rome-based conspiracy theory, and the leader said, "That's a pretty tame theory. The Bible's own conspiracy theory is much wilder. It says that God is plotting to overthrow every worldly power and establish his own rule once and for all. And the entire Christian church is in on it." The magnitude of God's plan hardly needs exaggeration: This is the God who, when it came time to pick teams, chose an old man, then a tiny nation, then the youngest son of Jesse, and ultimately the life of a commoner from Bethlehem—and with this roster undertook vanquishing the mightiest empires of the world.
To be clear, I am not saying that we should not look for religious meaning in surprising places. Even ostensibly irreligious works of art are transformed when viewed through a Christian lens. They can be savored for the fresh and unexpected ways in which they reveal God's truth.
Nor do I aim to silence genuine criticisms of the church or preclude taking seriously how non-Christians perceive the world. But not every insult is serious.
What I am saying is much simpler: Let's be more circumspect about what we pluck from the roiling waters of culture and bring to the world's attention.
God will Prevail
If the exhortation to turn the other cheek is a hard teaching for those who feel outraged by popular culture, it is perhaps even more challenging for evangelical Christians who are fascinated by it. No doubt some are concerned that an evangelical who doesn't embrace culture is effectively a fundamentalist. And for some who were raised in fundamentalist surroundings, it may feel courageous just to talk about popular culture in the church. But the rest of the world doesn't share that perception.
When we do criticize culture, we might bear in mind Karl Barth's advice to young theologians to read both the Bible and the newspaper, but to "interpret newspapers from your Bible." The Bible itself both reports and rebuts the words of its detractors, perhaps most famously in Psalm 14: "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no god.'?" The Prophets, the Gospels, and Paul all respond to provocations without taking undue offense. For example, Isaiah reacts to the Assyrian king's boasts by exploding his whole frame of reference: "Does the ax raise itself above the person who swings it?" (10:15a). Paul similarly turns the judgments of his contemporaries upside down when he says, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:25). These authors know that the truth is on their side, and they know that the truth of their message does not really need defending, because all will become apparent in time. Theirs is the stillness of faith (Ex. 14:13-14).
How much stronger are the people of God now than at any point in the history of Israel or the early church! The church should respect herself for her wondrous past, present, and future, realizing that she bestrides history and our narrow world like a colossus. She is at much greater risk from her power than from her weakness. It is a failure of faith of the first order to lash out on her behalf, as if she needed defending; it only reflects the narrowness of our own experience.
Oh, and Pullman's book? It's slowly falling down the Amazon rankings. May it languish on shelves like Betamax copies of Waterworld.
Christopher B. Hays, the D. Wilson Moore Assistant Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, is a former editor at Newsday and The Sacramento Bee.
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