“As long as a prerequisite for that shining paradise is bigotry, ignorance, and hate, I say to hell with it.”
— Henry Drummond, Playing the Wrong Suit
For nearly twenty-five years, evangelicals have been politically active. Large sums of money have been raised. Political PACs and think tanks have been formed. Elections have been won—even as far as the White House. Nonetheless, American cultural life has continued to decline over the same period. What was considered scandalous when aging Boomers were in college is now regular programming on family TV. We have not been effective in influencing culture.
It is wise to know the trump suit, when playing a game of cards. If you think you are playing Hearts, when you are actually playing Spades, you’ll soon find that you are holding a losing hand. The game determines what is trump. Cultural change requires changing minds and hearts. It cannot be forced. It involves shaping the stories and images that powerfully influence the way we perceive reality. Scottish patriot Andrew Fletcher wrote in 1704, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” Most of us are unaware of how our opinions are gradually changed from what we think we believe to that of our surrounding culture. It is the stories depicted on television, film, and music videos that set the terms of this cultural matrix.
Evangelical pastor Tim Keller observes, “Culture changes when a society’s mind, heart, and imagination are captured by new ideas that are developed by thinkers, expounded in both scholarly and popular forms, depicted in innumerable works of art, and then lived out attractively by communities of people who are committed to them.” If this is so, then the life of the mind, creativity in the arts, and winsomeness of our lives is trump. It would appear that we are holding a losing hand for these are not recognized evangelical strengths.
How are American evangelical Christians perceived by nonbelievers? Should we care? Should we not expect pagan animosity and persecution—and thus dismiss their point of view as anticipated spiritual warfare or partisan politics?
We should care and should examine their critique closely. While nonbelievers will have to address the scandal of the cross, they should never have to assume the scandal of the Christian. For many nonbelievers, Christians are the greatest single obstacle to Christian belief. We are genuinely offensive to them—sometimes this is because of their biases, often it is because their experiences. Too often Christians are not salt and light among their nonChristian neighbors. There is little about our contact with nonbelievers that they would readily affirm as life enhancing and a beacon of goodness. Instead, we are avoided at all costs. Just tell a gay or lesbian co-worker that you are “born again” and see what kind of reaction you get. We tend to put off those who found Christ most attractive, and appeal to those who Christ most commonly criticized: somehow we have gotten it backwards. Peter asks, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (1 Peter 3:13) We need to take an honest look at our perception problem. Christians cannot expect widespread cultural influence until we change the general opinion nonbelievers have of us.
We need to pay close attention to how we are stereotyped. Of course, these stereotypes are unfair. Obviously, there are exceptions. However, the blame game gets us nowhere, and teaches no lessons. Until Christians face up to how we are perceived, and address the failures for which we alone are responsible, our neighbors will have few reason to heed our lives and little motive to listen to our words.
A Critical Case Study
A case study worthy of our reflection is the 1960 film, Inherit the Wind, the fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Trial. The Scopes Trial is the low point of Christian cultural influence, a Pyrrhic legal victory that marked the end of Protestant cultural hegemony. The beginnings of this decline can be traced earlier, but few historical events continue to symbolize this loss more than the epic courtroom confrontation between the modernist lawyer Clarence Darrow and fundamentalist politician William Jennings Bryan.
The original play, Inherit the Wind, and subsequent film, is not an accurate depiction of the actual Scopes Trial. This was intended. The play was actually written to address the 1950s McCarthy Hearings held by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. This film was one of a number of plays and films produced in the 1950s as social commentary on these hearings—Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) , Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954), and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind (1955). Since its original film release in 1960, Inherit the Wind has been shown again on Broadway and on television numerous times. It is great theater and powerful cinema.
Our concern is not the film’s historical accuracy, but its negative depiction of Christians. Perceptions become reality—and there is enough truth to these perceptions for reflective Christians to take them seriously. Seeing them depicted dramatically gives them a sobering immediacy. To be culturally relevant, we must identify these perceptions and then seek to live lives that counter them. With the evolution-creation debate back in the news, it is a good time to reflect on some of the lessons of the film.
Lesson #1: We must find common ground without polarizing.
Matthew Harrison Brady: “I have come here because what has happened in your schoolroom has unleashed an evil from the big cities of the north. We did not seek this struggle. We are simple folk who seek only to live in brotherhood and peace, to cherish our loved ones, to teach our children the ways of righteousness and of the Lord.”
If we are ever to convince another person about the rightness of our position, we must first seek common ground. This was Paul’s strategy in his address on Mars Hill. We share a common humanity with every other person. The Manichean impulse to see reality in black and white terms, fails to reflect either the depth of sin or the extent of grace. The media prefers polarities—stark contrasts, simplistically positioned against one another. We do well to avoid situations where the nature of the medium makes finding common ground unlikely. It is far better to share a cup of coffee with a person with whom we disagree, than to put ourselves into a public debate with him before a live audience.
After C. S. Lewis’ failed debate with Elizabeth Anscombe in 1948, Lewis abandoned this form of apologetic contest and turned his attention instead to the intuitive argument of the well-told story and to what common experience and Scripture reveal. In his poem, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” he writes,
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all my victories that I seem to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Though who wouldst give no sign, deliver me…
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.
The effectiveness of Francis Schaeffer, and the ongoing ministry of L’Abri, is less his intellectual prowess or apologetic acumen, than truth lived out in the midst of a prayerful community. Truth is embodied in the context of love. We will never reach those most in need of the gospel if we position ourselves as their intellectual foil or political enemy. Our methods must be incarnational as well as our theology. We must be “with” and “along side,” instead of “against” or “opposed to,” if we are to model Jesus to others.
Inherit the Wind posits big cities against small towns, the North against the South, atheists against Christians, elitists against populists, old against young, father against child, learning against ignorance, science against religion, and intellectual freedom against governmental control. In such a setting, winning may actually turn out to be losing. This is less an historical accident as a rhetorical fact.
Lesson #2: We must seek truth without defensiveness.
Matthew Harrison Brady: “The people of this state have made it very clear that they don’t want this zoological hogwash slopping around the schoolrooms. I refuse to allow these agnostic scientists to employ this courtroom as a sounding board, as a platform, from which they can shout their heresies into the headlines.”
If we are ever to convince another person about the rightness of our position, we must first see ourselves as seekers of truth. If we come across as having all the answers, and we don’t, the nonbeliever will not listen. Especially in our day, when the idea of truth itself is in question, to claim to know truth demands far greater tact than in the past.
Moreover, if we exclude careful consideration of alternative positions, we will have not earned the right to be heard or be fully convinced about the truth of one’s own position. We must not be afraid to explore alternative worldviews or challenges to belief. There is no argument against belief in God that does not warrant our careful consideration. The recent debate about Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a good case in point. Isn’t this Solomon’s pattern in Ecclesiastes? He asks the question is meaning possible in a world without God? Can it be found via pleasure, power, altruism, spirituality, or education? His conclusion after a careful exploration is that each turns out to be a wild goose chase—“vanity”—ultimate meaning is found elsewhere.
God is truth and if we honestly seek truth, we will be eventually brought to him. We must always hold even our deepest convictions, open to re-examination. Pascal wrote that there are only three kinds of people in the end: those who seek and find, those who are still seeking, and those who do not seek at all. The Scriptural promise is this: “Seekers find.” To influence another, we must put ourselves along side them as honest seekers of truth. It is humility, not arrogance, which creates the possibility for dialogue and the openness to change.
Inherit the Wind depicts classrooms and courtrooms unwilling to even think about alternative viewpoints, and thus shuts off debate and inquiry at its inception. Such anti-intellectualism honors neither truth nor its Author.
Lesson #3: We must attempt persuasion without coercion.
Henry Drummond: “Can’t you understand that if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in private schools, and tomorrow you make it a crime to read about it, and soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man.”
If we are ever to convince another person about the rightness of our position, we must rely on persuasion rather than coercion. There is always the temptation to force one’s thinking on another, to pass laws where there is no intellectual consent. This is why politics tends to mirror accepted attitudes and why passing laws does little to change minds. Tocqueville warned early in our national history of the potential danger of the “tyranny of the majority.” Television has reduced thoughtful political debate to adversarial sound bites. Trust is increasingly undermined. Rhetoric is steadily inflamed. We have forgotten the first principles on which our nation was founded. The greatest political advancement in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights is the First Amendment, which protects freedom of conscience for citizens of all faiths or none. When the ends of truth are pursued by means of politics, coercion is inevitable. It is just as wrong to eliminate religion from public life (the naked public square), as it is to impose religion on public life (the sacred public square). Neither response is in the best interest of society. The semi-establishment of secularism in our day is no better than the semi-establishment of Protestantism a generation earlier. Freedom of conscience for the believer as well as the nonbeliever must be vigorously protected by both. As stated in The Williamsburg Charter, “A right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all.” What has become characteristic of political life has become true of our personal life to the point that people no longer want to talk about differences because the potential cost is too high. Sociologist Christian Smith writes in his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teens, that while there is a lot of talk about difference, the strategy for dealing with moral disagreement is you just don’t go there, you just don’t get into it. We are losing the ability to engage in civil debate and honest discussion of differences.
We live in an increasingly pluralistic society. The demands of pluralism involve more than generalized tolerance, as if deep differences can be ultimately set aside, they demand instead respectful debate and robust persuasion. The alternative leads directly to sectarian violence or studied silence. The benefits of pluralism for the Christian are that it allows for the saliency of good arguments and compelling lives to carry the day. It is little men and little ideas that resort to playing the bully on the playground.
Christians have not faired well under the cultural conditions of pluralism. We have not often recognized the requirements of cultural persuasion resorting instead to an almost knee jerk reaction to political majoritarianism. Victory, when earned in this manner, is actually defeat. It was in the Scopes Trial and it continues to be so today. Until Christians are known for the depth of their thinking, the breadth of their creativity, and the compelling nature of their lives, we will not have the tools necessary for lasting cultural influence.
John Washington Butler was a wealthy Tennessee farmer who heard about a girl returning from college believing in evolution instead of the Bible’s account of creation. This was alarming to him, particularly when he found out that it was taught in the public high school where his three boys attended. In 1921, he successfully ran for the Tennessee state legislature on the promise to remove these offending books from the classroom. The Scopes Trial was the result of the ACLU’s challenge to the Butler Act, which read in part, “that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities… and all other public schools of the state, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the state, to teach any theory that denies the story of Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The Butler Act was repealed in 1965—forty years after the trial.
Lesson #4: We must accept disagreement without judgment.
Matthew Harrison Brady: “We in Hillsborough have the opportunity not only to slay the Devil’s disciple, but the Devil himself.”
If we are ever to convince another person about the rightness of our position, we must first accept disagreement without a judgmental attitude. As soon as we resort to judgment in tone, words, or deeds, we close the opportunity for influence. As Jesus clearly outlined, judgment reaps only judgment (Matthew 7:1-5). It is the principle of reciprocity, we will be judged in the same manner that we judge. If we demonize, we will be demonized, if we seek understanding, others will be more open to understand. We would do far better to always speak of those with whom we disagree as if he or she were in our immediate presence. When we speak in the abstract or to our own constituency, we do little to further mutual understanding.
Those who speak harshly about persons who are involved in homosexual behavior, for example, would do well to befriend such a person. Having a name and a face in mind does much to moderate one’s rhetoric. Christians have much to learn from Christ about how to love the sinner and hate the sin. Particularly where nonbelievers emotionally identify with their behavior, as in the situation of homosexuality, this distinction takes special effort and aggressive kindness to overcome the woeful politicization conservative Christians have been party to for so long. We must learn to disagree agreeably, to differ while maintaining respect and compassion. We fail both in and outside of our churches, finding a self-righteous Pharisaical attitude much easier than nonjudgmental presence, constant prayer, and merciful tears. Jesus makes it clear: the test of the genuineness of our faith is the love we show toward our enemies. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” is a verse to be understood in this context. Without visible love for one’s enemies, there will be no influence possible. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). “God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but to save it” (John 3:17). The same must be true of our ministry of reconciliation (1 Corinthians 5:20).
Inherit the Wind depicts many scenes where judgment dominates. The towns-people are put in a terrible light in the film. In actuality, the citizens of Dayton were very kind to Clarence Darrow during the trial. He wrote later, “No one displayed the least sign of discourtesy, except perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Bryan… they glanced the other way any time we were at all near each other.” If there is one assumption most nonbelievers make about Christians, it is this: Christians are judgmental. Perhaps the most painful depiction of judgment is the relationship of Rev. Jeremiah Brown toward his daughter Rachel. Ironically, Matthew Brady stops the minister’s public condemnation of his child, quoting the Scripture from which the film is titled, “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind” (Proverbs 11:29). There are parallels worth nothing between how we parent our children and how we engage others in public life.
Lesson #5: We must use reasons without using people.
Rachel Brown: “I want the whole world to know that Matthew Harrison Brady is a fake.”
If we are ever to convince another person about the rightness of our position, we must see people as ends and never means. Rachel Brown’s outrage at Matthew Brady is because she felt betrayed and used. Winning became more important to him than caring. Whenever the means we use are not consistent with the ends we seek, we have betrayed both the means and ends. The Lord’s work must be done in the Lord’s way, or it is neither. If we are to influence culture, we need to start living and acting as if people matter—and this begins at home.
A Seeker’s Description
In the second half of the second century a pagan seeker wanted to know what made Christians so different. He wrote,
The differences between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or custom. Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life. The doctrine they profess is not the invention of busy human minds and brains, nor are they, like some, adherents of this or that school of human thought. They pass their lives in whatever township—Greek or foreign—each man’s lot has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organization of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising…. They obey the prescribed laws, but in their own private lives they transcend the laws. They show love to all men—and all men persecute them. They are misunderstood, and condemned; yet by suffering death they are quickened to life. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance. They are dishonored, yet made glorious in their very dishonor; slandered, yet vindicated. They replay calumny with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evildoers; and under the strokes, they rejoice like men given new life. Jews assail them as heretics, and Greeks harass them with persecutions; and yet of all their ill-wishers, there is not one who can produce good grounds for his hostility.
Is the same said by seekers about evangelicals today? Is this how we are perceived by the media? Strikingly absent in this description of early Christians are comments about their judgmentalism or hypocrisy. We know that they had their problems. The Book of Corinthians reminds us that they were not perfect. However, the public perception of their lives was remarkable and so was their influence. It has and can be done. If we learn these lessons, then we can begin to demonstrate ways other than bigotry, ignorance, and hate. To do so we must learn from our mistakes. Then we can thank our sharpest critics for encouraging us to become more like Jesus.