First of all, I write this to myself as much as anybody. Now, with that said…
I am concerned about how Christianity is perceived by those who don’t call themselves ‘Christian.’ It’s not that Christians are ridiculed in the media (we’ve always been ridiculed), but rather, what people assume I mean when I call myself a Christian is so very different from what I actually mean that I’m almost hesitant to use the word. I am not ashamed of the label, but there is so much misunderstanding that calling myself a Christian conveys almost the exact opposite of what I mean. I continue to use the word only because using another term only makes things even worse.
So, what do people think Christianity is? What do Christians mean when they say it? How did it get this way? And what do we do about it?
I haven’t done any surveys or studies to back myself up (so I could be entirely deluded about all of this), but it seems to me that there’s two dominant stereotypes of Christians about the place. One is the fundamentalist,1 and the other is the nice nerd.
The first stereotype, the fundamentalist, is probably the most common. To many, Christianity is the religion of judgementalism, hypocrisy and intolerance. In this stereotype, Christians are all about rules and obedience—about having the truth and condemning those who don’t have it. The fundamentalist is homophobic, racist, votes for right-wing conservative parties, pickets funerals, and enjoys condemning others. In other words, the fundamentalist is a bigot.
Stephen Pressfield gives a vivid description of this character in his book The War of Art:
“In [the fundamentalist’s] view, humanity has fallen from a higher state. The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed. The word of God has been spoken and recorded by His prophet, be he Jesus, Muhammad, or Karl Marx. […]
"In [the fundamentalist’s] society, dissent is not just crime but apostasy; it is heresy, transgression against God Himself.” 2
This is the straw man that the more aggressive atheists love to tear down. The fundamentalist believes that there are good guys and bad guys, and he’s a good guy. He has the truth, and is part of the right club, so he’s OK. And according to popular culture, this is the core of the problem with fundamentalists. Because he believes he has the truth, he’s intolerant of people who don’t believe the same things. He begins to resent outsiders and supposedly this is what causes violence and wars the world over. By this logic, people like the fundamentalist are the reason we can’t all just get along.
And as portrayed in popular culture, the fundamentalist is also a hypocrite: Preaching against homosexuality while secretly visiting gay prostitutes; preaching about a ‘God of love’ while actively seeking to condemn outsiders. Ostensibly, this is because the fundamentalist has a rigid, but flawed view of reality, that can’t handle any grey areas or ambiguity. So eventually the fundamentalist cracks and secretly gives in to temptation while furiously trying to keep up the appearance of conformity. At least, that is how the story of the fundamentalist is told.
The nice nerd
The other stereotype, the nice nerd is a really, nice guy who will always lend you whatever you need, never gets angry with you, never swears, drinks excessively, smokes or does drugs. He doesn’t stay up too late, he exercises regularly, spends time with his family, and files his tax return on time. He’s never grumpy or rude, and never raises his voice. He’s a religious version of the poem, Fitter Happier by Radiohead.
The nice nerd is perhaps most vividly portrayed by the character Ned Flanders from the Simpsons. Christianity Today called him the “the [Christian] known most intimately to [non-Christians].”3 “Ned volunteers at a foster home, hospitals, soup kitchens, and a homeless shelter.” He’s always happy and friendly to Homer, no matter how brusquely he is rebuffed. He’s nice.
The nice nerd is mostly pleasant, but he’s also awkward, and often down-right annoying. He dresses in clothes that were popular a decade ago. He’s hard to talk to because he’s extremely quiet. And when he does talk, he says strange things, or wants to talk about the book of Revelation and how the European Union is really a satanic conspiracy. He’s out of touch and often just plain weird.
Part of what makes the nice nerd weird is that he’s also a bit of a doormat. He doesn’t stand up for himself, or for anything else for that matter. Like Ned Flanders, who never calls Homer out for not returning his power tools, the nice nerd is too scared to confront anyone about anything. Underneath all the piety, he’s really a coward.
The trouble with stereotypes is that though they are often wildly inaccurate, they don’t come from nowhere. There is often a seed of truth in them, and we who call ourselves Christians need to take responsibility for that. There are some people who picket funerals and call themselves Christians, and there are Christians out there who are little more than nice nerds. However, though these people might be called Christians, they do not represent an accurate picture of Jesus or what Christians really believe. And that is (partly) our fault. We haven’t given people anything remarkable other than these two stereotypes to stick the label Christian on. But, if we truly believe what we say we believe, we should be living lives so radically different from these stereotypes that people have to create a new label to account for it.
Part of the reason that these stereotypes exist is that bits of them are half true. On the ‘fundamentalist’ side, Christians do believe that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and that one day God will judge the world. We do believe that God disapproves of drunkenness and infidelity and theft and murder. But at the same time, judgemental hypocrites are the kind of people of whom Jesus was most scathingly critical.4 He called them ‘snakes’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’. Jesus has always been against self-righteous hypocrisy and judging others.5 Nonetheless, we still believe that God’s judgement of our actions is a real thing. But judgement and justice is only a part of the story.
On the other side of the metaphorical coin, we believe that God is ‘slow to anger and rich in faithful love, forgiving wrongdoing and rebellion;’6 the God who tells us to ‘turn the other cheek’7 and forgive each other. The God of love, patience, forgiveness, mercy and grace. But in case anyone thinks this means that God favours only nice nerds, take a look a all the places the bible talks about ‘courage’ and ‘boldness’ sometime.8 Though some of us might like this side of God’s character better, it is still only a part of the story. And the truth is much greater than the sum of these parts.
The real story
The truth Christians believe is that God is great and powerful and he passionately hates all the awful things we do to each other (even more passionately than you hate the awful things done to you). And yet every day we stick our metaphorical middle finger up at him and pretend that he doesn’t exist; we shake our fists at him for not bowing to our wishes and making life go the way we want. We get angry with him for not worshipping us. In order to be fair and just—if God really is the ultimate ruler and creator of everything—God should rightly obliterate us. But he doesn’t. Instead, because he loves us, he became a human being, experienced all of what it meant to be one of us, and then obliterated himself in our place. He did it so that he could rightly say that he dealt with our rebellion, but at the same time forgive us and welcome us back. That is how he can be the God of justice who hates evil and wrongdoing, and at the same time be the God of love who forgives and welcomes those who used to be his enemies.
The real truth is that Christianity isn’t about being nice. Neither is it about the good people being in and the bad people being out. No, as someone much smarter than me said, it’s about the humble people being in, and the proud, arrogant people being out. Christianity is for the people who realise that they’re never going to be good enough, or ever be able to do it all. It’s about throwing yourself on the mercy of a God who did it all for you, so you don’t have anything to prove any more. You’re free to just be.
But if this truth is so very different from the stereotypes, why do these stereotypes still persist? Why do the fundamentalist and nice nerd still resonate so strongly with our collective psyche? Why aren’t Christians doing a better job of representing the God they worship? Sure, a religion based on admitting that you’re not good enough is never going to be amazingly well understood at first glance. But, surely we could be doing a better job of debunking these myths. Where did we go so wrong?
I think part of the problem is that a lot of us don’t really get who God is. We’re like Rev. Lovejoy from The Simpsons: bored, cynical, and afraid of tough questions. We’re not excited about God or the good news. So why would anyone want to join us? We don’t even bother trying to explain Christianity because we’ve domesticated it so much that we think it’s lame ourselves. Come, be a Christian—you get to have a mild sense of comfort that a vague deity might approve of you. Come, be a Christian—live life exactly like you were before, except with two more weekly meetings to attend, where boring people talk about boring things. Come, be a Christian—and experience the joy of being on a morning tea roster.9
I think we’ve lost sight of how big and important God is. Christians will often sing about God’s ‘glory’ or ‘holiness’, but I don’t think we really know what they mean. We think of glory as meaning something vaguely like fame. But in the original languages of the bible, the word means something closer to ‘gravity’. When we talk about God’s glory we are saying that he is significant, important, weighty. Like the sun that is so weighty that entire planets orbit around it, God is so significant that all of reality shapes itself around Him. And when we think of holiness, we tend to think of something maybe glowing, or perhaps just white and mystical. But when we say that God is holy, we are saying that God is so pure and so perfect that anything impure or imperfect that comes near is disintegrated into non-existence. His holiness also means that he is wholly other. Not like us. Not bound by space or time or a body. God is dreadfully, terrifyingly supernatural.
It is this God that became a human being, and lived the life of a poor, Jewish peasant. It is this God who died the death we should have died and lived the life we should have lived. It is this God that raised Jesus from the dead. It is this God who will one day ‘make everything sad come untrue.’ It is this God who is inviting everyone to an eternal party at his place for anyone who wants to come.
This is the God we worship, and to our ancestors, just being part of His kingdom was extremely valuable. To be included by this God was worth hardship, ridicule, and even death. They thought belonging to His kingdom was totally worth whatever it cost.
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.”10
So what do we do? Misinformation and misconceptions about Christianity abound, and Christians themselves reflect the God we worship poorly. If we want to give people something other than fundamentalists and nice nerds to call Christian, I think part of the solution is to actually do the things we’ve been telling ourselves all along that we should do: read our bibles, pray, meet with other Christians, tell other people about Jesus, and do good works. But I also think that when I write that, most of you have already fallen asleep before the end of the sentence. So, let me put it in completely different language. I think the solution is for Christians to make art.
When I write that Christians should make ‘art’, I mean more than simply oil paintings and sculptures. By ‘art’, I mean any cultural artefact or human interaction that conveys a message in a way that is unique. I’m using art in the sense that Seth Godin uses it in his book Linchpin:
Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.
What makes someone an artist? I don’t think is has anything to do with a paintbrush. There are painters who follow the numbers, or paint billboards, or work in a small village in China, painting reproductions. These folks, while swell people, aren’t artists. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod. You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances.
An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.
Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.
Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”11
I use the term art get my idea across, but it should be old hat. Jesus was talking about ‘letting your light shine before men’ over 2000 years ago. But we don’t let our light shine. We’ve been convinced by a demonic little voice whispering in our heads that the most horrible, unpleasantly mind-numbing way we can think of to tell someone about Jesus—that is what God wants us to do. And it’s a lie. There are some of us, yes, whom God calls to particularly difficult and even unpleasant tasks. And yes, any of us should be willing to joyfully take up that call if that is where God sends us. But most of the time, we just assume that God wants to give us awful tasks because, well, we secretly think he’s mean and doesn’t really love us. But again, that is a lie. There is plenty that each of us could be doing if we were just a little bit creative and willing to think beyond door-to-door evangelism or signing up for the morning tea roster (not that either of those things are bad).
God made us with gifts—special, unique gifts to use for others.12 And we have been explicitly told to use them.13 If we do not, we are denying our brothers and sisters; depriving them. God made us to do more than attend meetings and drink bad coffee. He made us to tell His story by making, and being, embodiments of that story.
We have the greatest story in the world to tell; the most important message anyone will ever hear. And never in history have we had more abundant and varied ways to tell it. You can write a novel, a blog post, a Facebook message, a tweet, an essay, a short story or a poem. You can paint a picture, take a picture, or photoshop 100 pictures together. You can write a song, perform a musical, develop an online game. You could make films, animations or music videos. You can ask the person scanning your groceries how their day is going, and what they’re getting up to when they finish their shift. You can bake a cake, buy some chocolates, cook a quiche or make apricot clown fish. You can offer to mow your neighbour’s lawn. You can volunteer. Or, you can start an orphanage for teenage girls in India.14 Pick something, anything, that excites you.
But whatever it is, remember who you’re doing it for, and do a good job of it. Don’t settle for copying something someone else has done and then slapping a bible verse on it to make it ‘Christian’. A lame copy doesn’t impress anyone and isn’t art. Sure, it might take some time to develop your skills and get good, but that’s OK. Set out to make something that is remarkable and use it to point to Jesus.
Be bold. Don’t wait for your pastor or some other leader to pick you. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission. It will be risky. Some people won’t like it. Some Christians won’t like it. But it’s about Jesus. You will be doing what you were made to do, and at the very least, life will be less boring. But who knows, maybe what you do will change just one person… or hundreds, or millions. But even if it’s just one, wouldn’t that be totally worth the effort?
I use the term ‘fundamentalist’ somewhat reluctantly, as what it has come to be associated with in our culture is very different from the literal meaning of the word. ↩
Mark I. Pinsky. “Blessed Ned of Springfield,” Cristianity Today http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/february5/1.28.html ↩
Read Matthew 23:1–36 sometime, for example. Particularly verse 33. ↩
Matthew 7:1–6 ↩
Numbers 14:18 ↩
Matthew 5:38–42. ↩
To give just one example, try reading Joshua 1 and counting all the times it says ‘be strong and courageous’. ↩
Not that there‘s anything wrong with serving on a morning tea roster. If that’s how you serve Jesus, then that‘s awesome. I just don’t think it's all there is to serving Jesus. ↩
Matthew 13:44–46 ↩
See, for example, 1 Corinthians 12:4–11, Ephesians 4:11–13, Romans 12:6–8. ↩
See Matthew 25:14–30 and 1 Timothy 4:14. ↩