Walk Humbly: Power and Presentation

All posts in this series refer to the conversation found here.

“My understanding is also that he would not be so literally offensive (in the sense of attacking, on the offence) when actually talking to a non-believer.”

Damon writes here about the attitude of the speaker, Voddie Baucham, in the video that he shared with me about the trustworthiness of the New Testament (though the video claims to be about why the Bible as a whole is trustworthy, it only really discusses the New Testament in depth).  I previously made the point in our conversation that Baucham has a triumphalist tone when he’s discussing common concerns he encounters from non-Christians when he’s trying to proselytize and how excited he is to catch them in logical fallacies (I think the fallacies he calls them on are rather absurd and deal in false equivocation, but that’s beside the point), and that tone rubs me the wrong way.

To put it another way, I find it dismaying when a Christian says that they like to be in the position of power in relation to a non-Christian (for a fuller exploration of why this kind of eagerness for power is problematic, check out this article by Richard Beck).  That is bald-faced anti-Christ talk right there, and it makes me angry to hear that kind of bullying nonsense promoted by anyone who’s supposed to be a disciple of Jesus.

Damon points out that the attitude Baucham takes in his lecture stems from understanding his audience.  When you speak to your in-group, you are free to use all the jargon and communicative shorthand you like because you can assume your audience’s familiarity with such things.  That’s a reasonable thing to do, and a good rhetorical strategy.  My complaint is that Baucham’s not just dealing in jargon, but that he’s saying that he’s going to treat people not like him differently.  He’s going to argue with them; he’s going to try to catch them in logical pitfalls; he’s going to win.

Say it with me now:

That is bad evangelism.

It’s bad evangelism because, like I said last time, you need to care about the person you’re speaking to.  They need to be viewed as a fellow human being fully deserving of your respect and attention.  You can’t do that if you cultivate an attitude that you’ll be polite to their face, but behind their back you’ll joke with your friends about how you can catch them off guard and gloat about the way you can steer your conversations with them.  That kind of attitude is all about presenting a false face to a target while saving your real face for the in-crowd.  It’s the attitude of a used car salesman.  Nobody likes or trusts used car salesmen.

In fact, now that I think on the used car salesman analogy, it helps throw into better relief that answer I’ve been contemplating to Damon’s question about the purpose of Baucham’s addressing straw men in his lecture (“Why would one waste their time defending against imagined opponents?”).  The obvious answer is because knocking down straw men makes a clever speaker look smarter without putting in any real effort.  The more insidious answer is that Baucham is not a used car salesman intent on fast talking non-Christians into buying a sleek, slightly used Jesus, but the motivational speaker for a group of used car salesmen who is trying to sell them on his methods for selling all the sleek, slightly used Jesuses to non-Christians.  He’s lying to both his in-group and his out-group.

Perhaps that’s going too far in my assessment of Baucham’s intentions; I don’t know anything about the man beyond what I’ve observed in one video, so these suspicions may be unwarranted.  However, I think it betrays a certain naivete on Damon’s part that he wouldn’t question the intentions of someone who makes a living by telling people how they can better sell their product to others.

If I’ve gathered anything from reading that article by Beck that I linked above, it’s that Christians should not be actively seeking power, especially in relation to non-Christians.  If we happen to have power then yes, we need to use it responsibly, but we shouldn’t be looking to impose a hierarchy of “I’m right; you’re wrong” on people who disagree with us (especially when we’re trying to persuade them to see the merits of our position).  We shouldn’t be talking amongst ourselves as though outsiders are less than us, all the while stroking our consciences with fervent reassurances that we’d never be that offensive to their faces, that regardless of what heathens they are we’ll treat them better than that.  That kind of behavior breeds assholes.

And no one wants to listen to an asshole, no matter how polite they may be to your face.

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Reading Flight 144

I’ve talked a little bit about evangelism in a couple of the previous entries in this series.  Regular readers know that I subscribe to the idea of evangelism as hospitality, and I find sales pitches like the ones that are packaged in Chick tracts to be repugnant, if for no reason other than their relentless use of scare tactics.

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No, I didn’t know that missionaries could be such big celebrities either. (Image credit: Chick.com)

Trying to scare your audience into Heaven is not a hospitable act, and therefore it’s not good evangelism.

That’s a point that I’ve probably belabored enough in the past, but I just wanted to bring it up again because the tract I’m looking at today has something to say about the connection between salvation and evangelism, although I don’t think it’s what Chick intended.

In Flight 144 we meet the Davidsons, an elderly couple who have been missionaries in Africa for 50 years who are now returning to the US in order to raise funds for their fifth hospital.  They’ve also kickstarted five schools in addition to that, so in the parlance of the evangelical community, I’d say they’re doing Kingdom work.  Those kinds of projects are phenomenally good for helping to improve the lives of people, and they exemplify how we might feed, clothe, and care for Christ through loving each other.  If the parable of the sheep and the goats is to be believed, God would welcome the Davidsons as faithful servants who acknowledged Christ in all they did.

Unfortunately for the Davidsons, Chick doesn’t agree with my assessment of their character.  The plane that they’re flying home on crashes over the Atlantic, and everyone aboard dies.  The cheerful young believer whom the Davidsons sit next to gets whisked off to Heaven immediately, while they’re taken by their angel to stand in judgment.  God gives them the cold shoulder because they never focused on evangelism in any of their ministry throughout their lives, and so the Davidsons are cast into hell.

I get that the point of this tract is to emphasize the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.  Chick hammers that home very well.

But.

The setup here is one big contradiction, because while the tract is so busy making the point that we can’t be saved by our works, it sets up the work of evangelism as a necessary component of salvation.  Because the Davidsons never explicitly proselytized anyone during their lives, God’s not happy with them.  Conversely, the young believer they sit next to on the plane says the only person he ever evangelized to was his cellmate in prison.  That’s a very modest bit of work, but it’s still something worth celebrating within the Church, and I don’t want to detract from the illustration.

Nonetheless, this is the only distinction we’re offered between the Davidsons and their single serving friend.  They’re all Christians (though the Davidsons do not explicitly name Christ, what we read about their actions suggests that they have a deep love of him), so according to the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, there shouldn’t be an issue.  Instead, God lays a smackdown on the Davidsons because they relied on their works.

Now, while there may not have been any explicit proselytizing going on in the Davidsons’ schools and hospitals, there most certainly had to have been a great deal of evangelizing.  You don’t care for people in need without demonstrating the love of Christ (actually, let me amend that to ‘you can’t care for people without demonstrating the love of Christ’).  Chick’s God doesn’t care about that though.

What Chick’s God cares about is whether or not you explicitly say to people, “Hey, listen!  Hey, listen!  You have to follow Jesus or you’re going to hell!  Hey, listen!”  That’s why the young believer gets a pass; even though it was meager, he did the one work that Chick’s God does, in fact, give a damn about.

That’s not salvation by grace through faith, folks.  That’s salvation by grace through faith plus this one other thing.  The fact that one other thing is the same thing that Chick tracts are designed to do (and make you feel guilty for not doing) must be entirely coincidental, I’m sure.  Of course, with this tract’s story, it’s apparently not enough that you’re made to feel guilty about not proselytizing; you’re also supposed to be scared if you aren’t doing it too.

Reading Fame

Alright, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way up front: this week’s tract is “adapted for black audiences” according to the Chick website.  What does that mean?  It’s full of black people.  Apparently Chick has an entire series of tracts “adapted for black audiences.”

Does anyone else see the problem with this marketing decision?

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Yes, I somehow find myself sympathizing with the guy negotiating a higher salary on his next movie for doing a sex scene. (Image credit: Chick.com)

We all know pretty well by now that Chick tracts reflect a very odd worldview that’s heavily xenophobic, anti-Catholic, and just generally paranoid about everything outside the conservative protestant evangelical branch of the Church.  That’s a lot of qualifiers for what the people at Chick consider to be their tribe, but I suppose we should go ahead and add ‘white’ to the list, because black people are so different from the in group that they apparently need tracts specially written and drawn for them dealing with subject matter that they would find uniquely interesting and relevant (such as the life of a famous movie star, like in this week’s tract, Fame).

I mean, seriously, if this were an attempt to make Chick tracts more diverse, I might applaud it as a sincere effort at inclusiveness, but there are clearly better ways to do it, the most obvious (I’d think) being that you simply make a point of including more characters of color in your new tracts.  That shows a genuine concern for sending the message that everyone is welcome in the Church, not a separate series of tracts with modified versions of stories that were printed in the main line.

So anywho, on with the story.

We open on a news reporter explaining that the world famous actor Douglas Ford has just been taken to St. Lucy Hospital for chest pains.  The second panel shows the chief of medicine holding a press conference to gush over how pleased he is that they have such a big celebrity in their care, although really I don’t think hospitals tend to give press conferences, let alone disclosing private information about a patient’s healthcare (hello, HIPAA!)

Before we meet Douglas, we get a hint of what’s to come with a panel that shows the cleaning lady Daisy (well, her back anyway) complaining about the crowd that’s keeping her from cleaning Doug’s bathroom and grumbling about “what he does.”  When we do meet Douglas, he’s meeting with a priest who’s telling him about a mass that was recently said for him by the local Cardinal, to which Douglas responds by asking his assistant to donate another $250,000 to the Pope (I’m pretty sure he means the Catholic Church, but this is Chickland, so maybe in this world the Pope can accept extravagant personal gifts).

In fact, Douglas is actually a pretty nice guy for a celebrity.  He’s kind to everyone he interacts with, and he’s rather patient with all the fawning fans.  Of course, he’s also self-absorbed, which comes across as a legitimate flaw, although it seems to me that part of this stems from that fact that no one ever does any real talk with Douglas.  When Daisy shows up to clean his bathroom, he’s offended that she tells him that he makes trash (not because he’s a Hollywood A-Lister who’s probably made his share of awful movies designed just to pull in a paycheck, but because he makes secular films that aren’t child friendly).

From this point, I could see a very touching, if well-trodden, story about the big name celebrity who learns about true love and friendship from a humble person who’s not at all impressed by his fancy adornments.  Heck, you could still throw in the evangelism without it being too forced.

Instead, what we get is Daisy saying, “You’re going to hell, now shut up so I can clean your toilet.”  Douglas becomes obsessed with what this cleaning woman told him about going to hell, and he has a mental breakdown on the set of his next film, a period piece that appears to be set in early 17th century France based on Doug’s costuming (maybe he’s been cast as Alexandre Dumas in a pseudo-historical action adventure that posits Dumas’s own life was the inspiration for The Three Musketeers; a huge stretch since Dumas was born in 1802, but that sounds like it’d fit perfectly in Hollywood), and goes back to the same hospital to speak with Daisy again.

She delivers the gospiel to him, and Doug has trouble accepting it because he’s afraid of losing all his fame and wealth (because actors with strong beliefs clearly get blacklisted for being religious nuts–oh, wait).  Despite these fears, Douglas takes the plunge and lets Jesus into his heart (chest pains!).

A year later he dies in a car accident, having suffered no ill consequences at all for his new found faith.  Way to go, Daisy the relentless brow-beater!

Seriously, Daisy nearly coerces Douglas to convert when he starts waffling.

Evangelism: I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Reading Born Wild

Some weeks when I sit down to look for a new Chick tract to review, I have a hard time finding one that strikes me as having a lot of comment-worthy material.  Other times, I have trouble picking one because I come across several that look like they’d be good for review.  I have a couple in mind for the next few weeks that should be fun to look at, but for today, we’re going to read Born Wild!

This tract is categorized as targeting older children on the topic of respect.  I took a guess before reading that this meant it would be about a demon child who suddenly changes his attitude completely after he gets saved (and I was right!).  Our protagonist this week is Dexter, a precocious seven-year-old who enjoys watching secular television, talking back to his mom Connie, and obsessing over the prospect of going to the funeral of a “real dead guy.”

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This is such a healthy, loving relationship. (Image credit: Chick.com)

Maybe this family’s surname is Morgan?

…nah.

Our story deals first with the death of Connie’s baby brother Jerry, a mobster who’s murdered after he’s caught stealing money from his boss.  It should be noted that the hit men that the “godfather” puts on this particular job must not be very well versed in their trade.  When discussing the hit, they say they want to make it look like a hit-and-run, so they proceed to actually carry out a hit-and-run.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m told to make a murder look one way, I infer that means I should carry the murder out a different way and then cover it up.

Here’s the problem: the driver in a hit-and-run may not be at fault for an accidental homicide, but he is at fault for leaving the scene of an accident that he was involved in.  If the police investigate Jerry’s death, they’ll want to find the driver.  Of course, that’s probably unlikely to happen since these are professionals and I’m sure they get rid of the car after the deed is done, but it leaves me wondering why they didn’t just abduct Jerry and leave him dead in a ditch out in the middle of nowhere (or do like Walter does on Breaking Bad and pull out the plastic barrel full of hydrofluoric acid).  It’s the small details like these that ruin an otherwise perfectly functional crime narrative.

Anyway, Jerry gets offed and his family is left to figure out how to deal with the aftermath.  While Connie is busy making the arrangements, Dexter continues to be a horrible child who imagines his dead uncle as a zombie who’s going to come back to terrorize everyone (he has such an active imagination).  This leads to Dexter having a nightmare about Jerry (which we don’t get to see) and thus deciding he doesn’t want to go to the funeral.  So Connie leaves her monster son with her perfectly pleasant parents, whom she inexplicably despises.

Well, it’s not entirely inexplicable.  Connie doesn’t like her parents (or grandparents; it’s not really that clear) because they are Christians, and she finds them insufferable, although in this case they’re not engaging in any of the typically “Christian” behaviors that Chick promotes as what you have to do to not be wracked with holy guilt for the entirety of your life.  Yeah, Dexter’s grandfather talks to him about Jesus, but there’s really nothing in it that’s particularly unusual for an evangelical protestant version of the gospel.

Dexter gets saved after one talk with his grandpa and it renders him instantly changed so that he becomes a model child, which Connie can’t stand.  She gets drunk a week later and complains to a friend that Dexter’s started praying for her and has even (gasp!) cleaned his room.  Then she falls down some stairs and breaks her neck (because ungrateful parents are just as bad as ungrateful children or something).  At the hospital, Connie falls into a coma while Dexter tries to proselytize to her, and he gets some vague confirmation that she’s been saved so he doesn’t have to worry when she dies a couple hours later.

I want to read the sequel to this tract where Dexter grows up to be an embittered drunk who’s angry at God for his mother’s untimely death and drives his own daughter away from the Church because he hates it so much.

Seriously, I think there are a couple of major leaps in logic here that Chick is making.  Children with problem behaviors do not just instantly turn them around once they find Jesus.  Even if it is entirely a case of poor decision making, changing behavior patterns is a difficult process, and Dexter should be shown struggling with the tension between his old impulses and the decisions he wants to make in light of his new motivations.  It’s absurd magical thinking to suggest that any person will just instantly change all of their behaviors after doing a sinner’s prayer.

Besides that, the story makes it clear that Dexter’s new faith is young (and also very simple, which is perfectly acceptable for a child).  Why doesn’t he question the justice of his mother dying suddenly?  Full grown adults struggle with this problem, and we’re supposed to take it at face value that Dexter’s change of heart has been so complete that he doesn’t even express any doubt about his mother’s fate.

I understand this is a tract aimed at children, and I respect that it’s trying to address some serious issues, like the unexpected death of a parent.  I’ll even allow that the intended purpose of a tract like this (or any tract for that matter) is to start a conversation about faith with someone, and the questions that are raised here are too complex for a twenty page pamphlet to fully answer, but the suggestion that things are neat and tidy even for children after converting to a new faith irks me as a dishonest proposition.

And that’s really the biggest offense I take at any of Chick’s tracts, when it comes down to it.  They’re marketed as “evangelism tools,” but there’s really no evangelism going on with these things.  They just tell stories that are comforting to a particular sect of the Church while making readers feel that God’s way of showing his love to us is a bizarre, passive aggressive display that amounts to “Love me back, or else!”

Even in a tract that’s aimed at children, I don’t expect God’s love to be portrayed as so childish.

Reading The Assignment

The last two Chick Tracts I’ve looked at have dealt with questions of pop culture.  The first, Dark Dungeons, critiques tabletop role-playing games as some kind of gateway drug to devil worship, and the second, The Last Generation, gives a very skewed view of the apocalypse (I mean, it doesn’t even involve any astronomical bodies hitting the Earth!).  The one I’m looking at today has a much smaller scope; it tells the story of a group of angels and a group of guys in bedsheets fighting over how to put people in the path of a guy who’s scheduled to die in a few weeks so that he either does or does not hear the gospel.

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Dobbs chokes when he’s given a chance to have a real conversation with his boss because he’s afraid of having to turn it into a sales pitch. (Image credit: chick.com)

We open with a briefing by some angels discussing how they’re going to reach the target, Charles Bishop.  They have two avenues of attack: one of Bishop’s employees, who they say shouldn’t be counted on because he’s “weak in the Word” and a sixteen-year-old girl who happens to be friends with Bishop’s daughter.  If these angels were betting spirits, they’d put their money on the girl.

At the same time the angels are discussing battle strategy, a group of demons (they just look like guys in bedsheets to me) are having a similar meeting.  Only they’re discussing how to keep the employee, Dobbs, and the girl, Cathy, from talking with Bishop.

My first problem comes from a phrase that the lead bedsheet guy uses to explain how they’re going to keep Dobbs in check: “He’s ashamed of the gospel!”

Why the blue bloody blazes are demons using Christianese?  What’s worse, this is the culmination of the demons’ reasoning for why Dobbs will be easy to derail; he’s “weak and gutless” but that’s nothing compared to the fact that he’s “ashamed of the gospel.”

I’m not entirely sure why demons would refer to the core belief of Christianity as the gospel, which we typically translate as “good news,” when from an infernal perspective, it’s anything but.

Anyway, the opposing teams go to work spreading their influence among the pieces on the field (because this is, at heart, a chess game; there doesn’t seem to be any concern on the part of either side for the human drama that’s playing out before them).  The angels get busy browbeating Dobbs with guilt that he hasn’t tried to proselytize to his boss in the two years he’s been working for him.  Meanwhile, bedsheet-guys get to Dobbs’s wife and convince her that if Dobbs tries to talk about his faith with his boss, then their whole livelihood will be in jeopardy (not an unreasonable thing to fear when the method that your husband is considering is handing over a tract with no context to explain his actions).

So Dobbs, who’s being guilt tripped by his worse angels and abused by his shrewish wife (because in Chick’s cosmic framework, that’s the only character option besides meek and Godly for a woman), ends up missing an opportunity to just have a conversation with Bishop when his boss just happens to see him praying over his lunch.

Okay, the point of this scene is supposed to be highlighting how Dobbs is a coward who’s “ashamed of the gospel” because he prioritizes his security over his commission.  Alternatively, I’d say that this is a scene where Dobbs fails to have a real conversation with his boss about something his boss is showing genuine interest in, because Dobbs’s only context for evangelism is through making propositions.  He’s not ashamed of his beliefs; he’s never been taught a graceful way to share them.

This is primarily because any sort of propositional approach to evangelism is inherently ungraceful.  It’s a sales pitch.  Dobbs, since he’s not a salesman, doesn’t want to make a sales pitch.  And he’s made to feel guilty about this.

The question of how Christians go about evangelizing is one that creates a great deal of anxiety.  When I first became a Christian and was told that I was supposed to be sharing my faith with everyone that I could, I got really nervous.  Faith is a deeply personal thing, and talking about personal things face to face with people causes me all kinds of anxiety; it’s why I prefer written communication and think the internet is one of the greatest inventions of humanity.  More importantly, I am not a salesman.  I do horribly when I have to make a proposal about anything.  Throw on top of that the pressure of someone’s immortal soul hanging in the balance, and I’m likely to go to pieces.

Heck, even in situations in the past where I’ve felt confident about making the kind of propositional argument that Chick’s promoting here, I’ve regretted it after the fact.  There was one evening that I spent with some good friends a few years ago where I laid it all out for them, and the end result for me was despair that I had failed.  My theology’s evolved quite a bit since that episode, and if we ever revisited the conversation I’d have very different things to say, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that propositions are not the way to go.  I wouldn’t make arguments, because an argument with enough care and craftsmanship can support any position.

No, I’d just talk and listen.  We’d probably still disagree, but that wouldn’t be the point of the conversation.

See, one thing that I failed to recognize when I had the original conversation was that it took place in my home.  I had friends over, and we talked for hours, and even though there was lively debate, there was no hospitality.

In the larger view, that’s something I feel more ashamed of than any instance where I wasn’t actively trying to proselytize.

So back to Chick: all the warring between the angels and the bedsheet-guys ends up coming right down to the wire, and even though the angels succeed in getting Cathy to make her pitch to Bishop, which he finds convincing, he ends up dying unsaved anyway.  His reasoning: he’d lose his friends if he became a Christian, probably because he’d be called to make propositional arguments all the time.

I guess Bishop didn’t want to be a salesman either; too bad he and Dobbs never got a chance to talk about that.