Busting Myths About Christianity: Assessing Myths 7-8


Odysseus blinding the cyclops PolyphemusOver the last week, we've been looking at commonly heard statements about Christianity that have taken on mythical proportions. It's hard  to be a Christian in the West and not encounter these myths: 

  1. Christians are more judgmental than non-Christians.
  2. Christians are stingier than non-Christians.
  3. Christians are more intolerant of other people than non-Christians.
  4. Christians are more short-sighted than non-Christians. 
  5. Christians don't know how to have fun. 
  6. Christians despise intellectuals more than non-Christians do.
  7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art.
  8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting.
  9. Companies run by Christians are as unethical as secular companies, and perhaps more so.
  10. Christianity causes more problems in the world than any other religion.

Today, we'll look at myths #7 & #8:

7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art

As the Church of Jesus Christ grew and expanded, it touched nearly every art form. The Gospel's revelation of the divinity of Christ and His human nature resulted in a synthesis that ultimately broke the back of gnostic religions. This, in turn, created an environment in which art flourished, as God's coming to Earth as Man hallowed imagery.

But while the important artists that forged the backbone of Western art identified as Christians, the 19th century saw an increasing backlash against the realism that undergirded Christian art up until that time. With the coming of German higher criticism in the late 19th century, questions about the veracity of Scripture led to questions about absolute truth. The resulting cultural decline reflected in art that deconstructed itself.

Christian artists, unable to fend off the trend, either stayed true to their art and faded into profitless obscurity, or they pandered to low culture in an attempt keep bread on the table. When modern marketing techniques raised advertising to the level of popular art, the culture rewarded ad icons. Those icons, when mass marketed, led to an even lower form of art now known as kitsch.

I suspect that the rise of fundamentalism on one side and higher criticism on the other, dealt a death blow to Christian art during the Great Depression. Fundamentalists, in an entrenchment move, lumped all contemporary art into the category of "potentially evil," and this spilled over into the Evangelical consciousness. As a reaction against the supposed judgment that fell upon this country for the Roaring Twenties, Fundamentalists pushed hard against all forms of profligacy, and art, as a whole, suffered in that wake. Art, in general, lay damned.

But God built a creative spirit into man, so that desire to create needed a channel. What it got was a version of art that combined advertising imagery with a new sanitized Christian "ideal." And popular art, especially by Christians, has not recovered.

In her seminal book, A Profound Weakness: Christians & Kitsch, Betty Spackman argues from two sides of this issue, at once decrying kitsch as poor art, while acknowledging that it can still carry meaning for Christians. More to the point, she makes a bulletproof case that much of what passes for Christian art today is more kitsch than art, and that recovering a true appreciation by Christians for more masterful art may be difficult given the current state of Christian subculture around the world.

When all of Evangelicalism in the West is considered, it's hard to escape the truth that kitsch dominates our expression. From our "His Pain, Your Gain" t-Shirts to "WWJD" jewelry to modern megachurches, Christian culture perpetuates kitsch over substantive works, the typical Christian bookstore replacing the secular museum. Worse yet, the average Christian today can rack his brain and not come up with the name of a contemporary Christian artist—with the possible exception of Thomas Kinkade.

The problem of Christians and kitsch extends to all parts of the creative life within the Church. As kitsch itself is a derivative form, so too many creative endeavors within the Christian community lack a true defining Christianity, instead adding a Christianized coating to secular forms. What a true Christian expression of the arts might look like in the 21st century is yet to be seen, but we all should hope to live long enough to witness its full blossoming.

Assessment: Confirmed


8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting

Our affinity for kitsch means Christian expression cannot avoid including it at the core of our subculture. As mentioned above, the derivative nature of kitsch means the art itself has come from some other source, itself often derivative. Christians attempting to create out of that limited pool come off as pseudo-sanctified mynah birds, rather than images of the Spirit as dove.

For this reason, contemporary Christian culture in the West lives more off a perverted form of its past than a vital present. When the Reformation is reduced to a derivative t-shirt, it's hard to argue that modern Christians care one iota about leading culture, preferring instead to be culture's dog on a leash.

Appealing to cultural relevance only worsens the problem, pulling the Church down into the world's cultural cesspool. Though not all of modern culture should be viewed at arm's length, sadly, the aspects deemed most usable by the Western Church are the ones most needful of discarding. Sure, it may be possible to erect something intriguing out of rusty tin cans, but is that redeeming the time we've been given by the Lord?

Until the Church in the West abandons its love affair with redeeming the sleaziest parts of our culture, most of what we redeem from it will be garbage. And derivative garbage, at that. Encouraging folks guided by the Lord to create new directions in culture—leading, not following—and backing their gifts wholeheartedly is our only hope.

Assessment: Confirmed 


Stay tuned, the final two myth assessments still to come… 

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{Image: Odysseus blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus

Busting Myths About Christianity: Assessing Myths 4-6


The other day, we looked at three myths that dog Christianity, particularly the form found in America. Today we'll examine three more.

The ten myths:

  1. Christians are more judgmental than non-Christians.
  2. Christians are stingier than non-Christians.
  3. Christians are more intolerant of other people than non-Christians.
  4. Christians are more short-sighted than non-Christians. 
  5. Christians don't know how to have fun. 
  6. Christians despise intellectuals more than non-Christians do.
  7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art.
  8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting.
  9. Companies run by Christians are as unethical as secular companies, and perhaps more so.
  10. Christianity causes more problems in the world than any other religion.

Let's look at numbers four through six…

4. Christians are more short-sighted than non-Christians

You won't find a church with a Fifty Year Plan. Or a Twenty, for that matter. Long-range goals don't figure into much of what we do in American Christianity. In many way, we American Christians resemble a school full of amnesiacs, always learning, but never remembering the past well enough to build toward a future.

Somehow, we've allowed the first half of one passage to subsume the rest of Scripture: 

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"– yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
—James 4:13-14 ESV

While most of us would deem "Live for today for tomorrow you die," to be the ultimate self-centered expression of a culture hellbent on hedonism, we've somehow aligned it with the James passage. We get all dispensational and start talking how "it's all going to burn." Our lives take on "So what?" sheen.

That so many people who call themselves believers fall into this trap should bother us. But it doesn't.

Jesus said this:

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
—Matthew 6:19-21 ESV

We need to look at James in light of Jesus. The Lord tells us that our mist-like life here and now has eternal purpose that will carry over into the afterlife. Singer-Sargent "Hercules and the Hydra"It is one thing to live for the day, but quite another to live for the day so eternity is richer.

You don't hear enough sermons about storing up treasure in heaven. I hear plenty about living the good life now, yet the only correct way to understand "it's all going to burn" is not as an excuse to cover profligacy this side of heaven, but as the means of testing every man's and woman's work after we die.

Who can blame a non-Christian for going for the gusto now? He or she's got nothing else to look forward to. Some will move beyond the "live for the moment" lifestyle that plagues America, opting for the concept of a "legacy." Even that may be wishful thiking, hoping our typical three-month collective memory will somehow stretch out to a century or more.

But when a Christian adopts "grab all the gusto' as a personal motto? That's the most pathetic short-sightedness of all. Yet how much of modern Christianity in the United States lives by that mantra? Better that we all be poor wretches considered the scum of the earth by non-Christians than we build a Camelot now that will only succumb to moths and rust.

Are all Christians that short-sighted? No. But increasingly, our churches fill with folks looking for the good life stamped by the Holy Spirit's seal of approval. When our preaching says nothing of building a true legacy that we will actually play out in eternity based upon what we do now, our short-sightedness damns us to a future as the shoe-shine boys of heaven, buffing the sandals of saints who laid it all down, even unto death.

We know we have an eternal future. What is more short-sighted than living as if that doesn't matter?

Assessment: Confirmed


5. Christians don't know how to have fun

When it comes to amusing ourselves to death, I think American Christians find as many ways to do it as non-Christians, albeit with fewer F-words and less full-frontal nudity.

We demanded, and seem to have received, more movies geared to Christians. And while the finished products haven't been all that spectacular, our craving for more will ensure they keep coming–with increasing regularity.

I plan on writing more about this topic in the near future, but in many ways, we Christians in the United States traded sanctification for entertainment. When God Himself no longer seems to excite us, we surround Him with our little cultural dog and pony shows, praying someone will pay attention. How else do we explain the entertainment complexes we used to call "churches." At one point in time, we went to see men on fire for God, but now preachers have to literally pour gasoline over themselves and light a match to get anyone to sit up and take notice.

Oddly enough, this fifth myth may be a remnant from the Seventies, before Christians got hip to their entertainment choices. I'm not sure non-Christians today hold the opinion that Christians don't have fun. That's been replaced with the concept that Christians don't really care about the life and death belief system they hold, practicing those beliefs more as a hobby than a way of life. If anything, it's the non-Christian who's grown more serious about life, while too many of us Christians worry that our new 60" TV still isn't big enough to show all the fine detail in the latest Left Behind video game we bought after reading the book and seeing the movie.

It's quite sad that in so many instances the one thing that separates us from non-Christians isn't the amount of entertainment we consume, but the randomly-sterilized nature of the entertainment we spend millions of dollars buying. Sure, their violent video game has swearing, but our violent video game doesn't.

If we think we're fooling God with that kind of subtlety, we're only fooling ourselves.

Assessment: Busted—perhaps too Busted


6. Christians despise intellectuals more than non-Christians do 

It would be safe to say that I don't personally know any Christian intellectuals. On the other hand, while I do not know any non-Christian intellectuals, either, I know a few who have convinced themselves they are. And as we all know, an audience that only consists of one's self is usually an easy audience to please.

First Things has a couple online articles covering Mark Noll's seminal book on this issue, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (found here and here). Dr. Noll researched that book during my tenure at Wheaton, and though I never took any classes from him, I had a few other profs I'd classify as intellectuals. Unfortunately, like most intellectuals, those profs congregated in very tight circles. The less intellectually rigid of us rarely encountered them "in the wild." And so it is today.

I knew an Old Testament scholar who attended the same church I once did. Sadly, that church never seriously appreciated the kind of study that scholar pursued. Though they trotted him out on occasion as a kind of "please take the witness stand, Doctor" expert, he eventually left the church. I suspect he tired of being a sort of intellectual freakshow amid people who'd rather be watching Fear Factor.

So whither the Christain intellectual? Do any still exist?

Say what we will about history, but it's loaded with Christians (and people who mentally assented to Christianity) who drove the arts, philosophy, literature, and science—and in large numbers.

But what happened to them all? Where did they go? Sure, you see a Plantinga here, and a…uh, hmm. I'm not coming up with any names for contemporary Christian lit authors. Artists? Nope—no one comes to mind. In fact, I suspect that most Christians, even if their lives depended on it, couldn't name one contemporary Christian intellectual or artist.

Are we so bereft today that all we can remember are those great Christian intellectual luminaries of the past? Christianity nurtured Western civilization into being, yet in the 21st century we Christians gave it all away.

Perhaps we missed the point of this verse:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
—1 Corinthians 1:20 ESV

Rather than understanding that cleverly invented myths from the world's wisemen don't trump the eternal truth of God correctly handled God's wise men, we threw all the wisemen—and their wisdom, no matter the source–out.

That this ignores most of the rest of Scripture, and also makes a fine distorted case for tearing all the wisdom books out of the Bible, eludes far too many people. In the end, Christianity never calls anyone to turn off his mind. To insist it does only results in the kind of brain-dead emotionalism that leads to error. Hoisting godly wisdom by it own petard makes the Church look vacant in the cranium.

While the non-Christian may ignore the intellectuals, I suspect precious few of them are hauling out treatises to discredit the life of the mind. We Christians of the 21st century, unlike our predecessors of long ago, seem to be the ones intent on slaying the intellect.

If the few Christian intellects left decry the problem, perhaps there's some truth to the rumor. But then, we don't listen to anything they say anyway.

Assessment: Confirmed


More myth assessments in days ahead…

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{Image: Hercules and the Hydra by John Singer-Sargent — Simply awesome.

Busting Myths About Christianity: Assessing Myths 1-3


Cellini's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa"Last week, I proposed ten common myths about Christianity after watching a marathon of the TV show Mythbusters on Christmas Day.  I floated the myths to you readers to see what you thought about them, and also asked how they might be scientifically labeled as busted, plausible, or confirmed.

The Ten Myths:

  1. Christians are more judgmental than non-Christians.
  2. Christians are stingier than non-Christians.
  3. Christians are more intolerant of other people than non-Christians.
  4. Christians are more short-sighted than non-Christians. 
  5. Christians don't know how to have fun. 
  6. Christians despise intellectuals more than non-Christians do.
  7. Christians prefer kitsch over important art.
  8. Christian subculture mimics the world rather than creating anything lasting.
  9. Companies run by Christians are as unethical as secular companies, and perhaps more so.
  10. Christianity causes more problems in the world than any other religion.

I wish I could say that I have the same kind of rigorous scientific data to correctly analyze those myths, but I can't. Like the mythbusters in the show, the best I can come up with is my own personal experience after encountering those myths in my own Christian walk of 30 years. I've personally tested some of those myths in my own life, or I've watched them play out in other people's. Whatever I come up with here will therefore not necessarily apply everywhere. In other words, Your Mileage May Vary.

Onto the first few myths… 

1. Christians are more judgmental than non-Christians

Though the old show All in the Family is rapidly fading from public consciousness, Archie Bunker lives on in the lives of plenty of people. If there's one thing that can be said about Americans, it's that we have an opinion on everything—and we aren't afraid to let others know it. 

Both non-Christians and Christians have their share of Archie Bunkers who compartmentalize everything in life and assign an opinion. The Blogosphere provides a window into the American judgmental mentality as one blog after another (including this one) waxes poetic about the meaning behind everything from commercials for diapers to politics.

Judgments fill the air.

On the whole, though, we Christians can't escape being judgmental. In the end, we're far more judgmental than non-Christians if for no other reason than the Bible commands us to be so:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
—1 John 4:1 ESV

Now our definition of what constitutes a "spirit" might vary, but if we believe that ideas have spiritual forces (both good and evil) behind them, then a true Christian worldview demands that we constantly judge. Non-Christians can follow the spirit of the age, but we're called to make judgments that keep us off the broad road that leads to destruction.

But what of this?

"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you."
—Matthew 7:1-2 ESV

The problem for us comes when we fail to discern the difference between ideas and people. The Lord doesn't ask that we judge people. He alone judges people because only He can correctly judge someone's heart. We're to test spirits. We accept or reject spirits, not people.

Christianity in America can't seem to understand this distinction. This leads us to a bunker mentality at odds with our Lord, the One who ate with prostitutes and tax collectors

In that way, our judging comes back to haunt us. I suspect that one of the main reasons the Church in the United States is so critically unproductive concerns our inability to judge correctly, even though we're hyperactive about labeling and judging others. The outstretched arm we use to keep "evil" at bay also holds others back from knowing Christ.

So yes, Christians are supposed to be more judgmental than non-Christians. Our problem is the way in which we judge and our judging people rather than spirits. It is one thing to make godly decisions, but quite another to be a Christian Archie Bunker.

Assessment: Plausible


2. Christians are stingier than non-Christians

A new book entitled Who Really Cares by Arthur C. Brooks tackles the liberal/conservative battle over charitable giving. Brooks details the reality that while liberals talk about helping others, conservatives actually do it. At least they show they do it by the amount of money they give to the less privileged.

Who Really Cares postulates that those people who truly give tend to possess at least three of four distinctives:  a religious devotion, strong families, personal entrepreneurship, and a skepticism about the government's role in economic life. Those traits seem to come right out of Focus on the Family's promotional material, but they underscore the author's point.

What then to make of the perpetual grousing from wait staff at restaurants that Christians are the worst tippers? A few blogs jumped on the fact that wait staff bemoaned the cheapness of attendees at a recent Southern Baptist Convention conference. I had lunch with a pastor a few months ago and he asked our waiter what his least favorite time to work was. "Sunday" was the answer. And I'm sure you know why.

Our generosity—or lack of it—says much about the state of our souls. In too many Christian circles, I believe the prevailing verse might be

The poor you always have with you….
—John 12:8a ESV

That verse becomes an excuse not to help. We gave our ten percent at church, so don't ask anymore of us because, hey, the poor will always be there. In some circles we also hear that the poor deserve to be poor because they're out of God's will (or they're right in God's will and God is simply punishing them right now) or that they simply have not put strategic biblical principles in play to seed wealth and prosperity.

If anything, the call to genuine Christianity entails this:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
—Acts 2:44-45 ESV

Does anyone see this actively practiced in most Christian churches in America? I certainly have seen little of that kind of practice on the whole, though I've encountered a smattering of families who truly believe to that level of commitment. On the whole, though, our American mindset of wealth accumulation trumps that Acts passage.

So while Arthur Brooks's study may be true, it's sadly not true enough. The bar the Lord set for giving outstrips our timid attempts, proving us far stingier than we're called to be.

In the end, whether Christians outgive non-Christians isn't really the issue, but whether Christians are giving as much as they should be. In that regard, we're falling down on the job.

Assessment: Wrong question.


3. Christians are more intolerant of other people than non-Christians.

This issue parallels #1 since judging people leads to shunning them.

It's hard not to think that we Christians today lead sanitized lives. Certain Evangelicals, in particular, are prone to erecting the kind of suburban Camelots where keeping that "one brief shining moment" from brevity demands one's attention 24/7/365. One day, that kind of idolatry may very well have a name. (I'm lobbying for "Osteenism" for its apt similarity to Onanism.)

Should we be surprised then that messy people bother us? We like our sinners converted and with a side of Prada. Nevermind some hooker who smells like the confluence of a twenty-year-old bottle of Charlie and the back booth of an adult bookstore. We'll erect a ministry to take care of her and man it with new college grads, their idealism still intact. But invite her into Camelot? Puhleeze!

Maybe it's not so much that we're intolerant, but that we've trumped the rest of Scripture with this one verse:

Do not be deceived: "Bad company ruins good morals."
—1 Corinthians 15:33 ESV

Yes, if we go alone into the world of filth, we may be compromised. But if we bring the lost into a community of faith, that's entirely different.

Our inability to accomplish this simple task reflects in the American Church's poor showing in evangelism. By all accounts, the church in this country is not growing. As pollster George Barna notes, 9/11 did nothing to swell our ranks. We're still asleep in the light.

What does this have to do with intolerance? Nothing is more intolerant than letting someone pass into a Christ-less eternity. Yet the knowledge that eternal damnation greets those whose name is nowhere to be found in the Book of Life no longer distracts us from preserving our little Camelots.

"Intolerant" doesn't mean that we have to actively crusade against some evil group or another to win that label. What it does mean, though, is that we simply don't care enough to see beyond some group's perceived evil to the real lost souls behind it.

So while non-Christians may not tolerate others, their intolerance comes to nothing. It simply doesn't matter.

On the other hand, our intolerance means people wind up in a lake of fire without end.

Last month, I quoted the following from Leonard Ravenhill's classic Why Revival Tarries, but it fits here again:

Charlie Peace was a criminal. Laws of God or man curbed him not. Finally the law caught up with him, and he was condemned to death. On the fatal morning in Armley Jail, Leeds, England, he was taken on the death-walk. Before him went the prison chaplain, routinely and sleepily reading some Bible verses. The criminal touched the preacher and asked what he was reading. "The Consolations of Religion," was the replay. Charlie Peace was shocked at the way he professionally read about hell. Could a man be so unmoved under the very shadow of the scaffold as to lead a fellow-human there and yet, dry-eyed, read of a pit that has no bottom into which this fellow must fall? Could this preacher believe the words that there is an eternal fire that never consumes its victims, and yet slide over the phrase with a tremor? Is a man human at all who can say with no tears, "You will be eternally dying and yet never know the relief that death brings"? All this was too much for Charlie Peace. So he preached. Listen to his on-the-eve-of-hell sermon:

"Sir," addressing the preacher, "if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!

It's all how you look at it. And from where I sit today, I don't see us doing much about it.

Assessment: Confirmed, in far too many cases. 


Stay tuned the rest of this week for more assessments of supposed myths about Christianity. 

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{Image: Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini}