In a recent article my friend, Christianity Today columnist and King’s College humanities professor, Alissa Wilkinson explained why she, a practicing Christian and professional film critic, hates Christian movies like the recent evangelical blockbuster God’s Not Dead 2 and Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind. With their flat caricatures of non-believers, their superficial and simplistic depictions of both faith and doubt, their blatant political partisanship, and their shameless product placement (Duck Dynasty! Mike Huckabee! Newsboys!), these films pander to (and make billions off of) an entrenched evangelical subculture. She writes, “The glaring problem with God’s Not Dead, and most other films made for and marketed at the ‘faith audience,’ is that instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians, they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears instead.” The problem isn’t just that such films are artistically sub-par, it’s that they are sub-Christian. Wilkinson writes,
It is a basic article of Christian belief that all people bear God’s image. We are to exercise the same boundless imagination and creativity that he does. Christians, of all people, ought to push hard against people who try to sell a fear-mongering, illogical, politically driven version of Christianity, where the goal is for your team to win, to prove you’re right…. We ought to be making fabulous movies that raise religious questions: who are we? Why are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What should we do while we’re here? And since Christians believe in God’s very aliveness—since our theology suggests that people don’t save others’ souls, God does—and since we don’t have anything to lose, we shouldn’t think we have to swoop in and answer the question before the credits roll.
Instead of making provocative films that wrestle deeply with the mysteries of faith and doubt, life and death, time and eternity, the evangelical subculture—a subculture which is very much of but not in the world, imitating some of the worst aspects of our consumeristic culture and reducing the Church to a niche market—has opted to make self-serving, narcissistic propaganda. So long as this is the sort of art we make and consume, we will be a marginal, parochial, and uninteresting people.
It wasn’t always so. Sometime in the late 2nd century AD a Christian whose name is now lost to us but who is traditionally referred to simply as Mathētēs (which is just Greek for “disciple”) penned a letter to his friend Diognetus, a non-Christian who had been asking questions regarding the nature, content, and import of the Christian faith: What god do Christians believe in? How do they worship this god? Why do they love each other so? And why has “this new race” (kainòn toûto génos) only just now come into the world? Diognetus had encountered a provocative people and his curiosity had been piqued.
The most striking passage of Mathētēs‘ confident, generous reply to Diognetus comes in the fifth and sixth chapters of the letter. Having critiqued the popular paganism of the Greco-Roman world and the separatistic tendencies of ancient Judaism, a community marked out by distinctive diet, apparel, and calendar, Mathētēs describes what I like to call the distinctive distinctiveness of the Christian community. Christians’ a distinctiveness is not fundamentally a matter of food, or clothing, or holy days, but is a distinctiveness of a very different sort. He writes:
…Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life…. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth (tēs eautôn politeías). They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their homes with each other, but not their marriage beds. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven (all’ en ouranō politeúontai). They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.
“To put it simply,” says Mathētēs, “What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.” The distinctive distinctiveness of the early Christian community was their mundane activity for transcendent ends, their public service and their heavenly allegiance, their long-suffering, their selfless generosity, their countercultural commitment to chastity, and, above all, their patient love towards friend and enemy alike. Mathētēs’ vision of the Church was not a vision of an idiosyncratic, self-isolating subculture—a mere cultus privatus, which the Romans would have gladly tolerated and legally sanctioned—but rather a radical people who are resolutely in but not of the world, a people whose capitol is ultimately not Rome but Heaven, a people in the stream but decidedly swimming against it. This vision, inherited from Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and from Jesus Himself, inspired and enabled the early Christian movement to revolutionize the ancient Western world in a way that a private subculture never could. This was a provocative people, a people who turned the world upside down.
What might it look like for the Christian community to once again act as the soul of the world? What if Christians were to once again be distinctively distinctive? What would it look like for us to be in but not of modern culture’s most formative institutions—not only the arts, but the marketplace, the sciences, and government? Might such a revitalized and culturally engaged Church revolutionize the modern world the way our forebears revolutionized the ancient world? That’s the question I am going to be asking over my next few posts. I would welcome your feedback as well as your prayers.
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