I watched Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous for the second time last night. I’m not exactly sure what inspired this viewing. Of course, the entire point of the movie is to make various belief systems (especially Christianity) look ridiculous, and Maher supposed to accomplish this by interviewing some very odd, ill-informed, blindly passionate and/or willfully deceptive faith leaders. I mean, come on, he visited a Holy Land theme park and interviewed the actor playing Jesus. He stopped in at a trucker church in Memphis and wanted to argue theology. Bill Maher, who is highly opinionated and well-spoken, came at these people with his arguments loaded and ready, and he got exactly what he was hoping for: a barrage of apologetics clichés that carry little to no weight in an intelligent discussion, and believers who appear blind and ignorant in their devotion. Admittedly, I was a bit embarrassed (to the point of having to look away a couple times) by some of the believers portrayed in the interviews. It doesn’t bode well for faith when the critics are more informed than the congregants.
I’m not saying these things to be critical. Many of the folks being interviewed were totally blind-sided by the blatant opposition and it’s natural to get flustered or frustrated when that happens. I guess I was just challenged by it all.
Living here in China has been so good for me in this respect. While my “critics” are not so informed in terms of tenets or doctrine, they are, for the most part, incredibly intelligent. They believe in money, knowledge, science & evolution and have been heavily indoctrinated by atheism. Talk of miracles, prayer, salvation, even the very existence of God, gets them laughing. To say that I believe the stories I tell, to them, is like having faith in folklore or fairytale. It’s silly to them and they’ve not been shy about letting me know! One has several options when encountering this reaction, and I’ve grappled with them all…
- Become defensive and argumentative
- Try to make the Gospel sound more “believable”
- Feel hurt or offended
- Back down or build walls
- Graciously impart truth
The first response, quite honestly, has never been an option for me. I get too nervous and my heart races, my voice gets all shaky and everyone thinks I’m going to cry. Plus, I’ve found that most people shut down when things take an aggressive turn, and it isn’t really how we’re called to interact with others. Jesus never bullied anyone into believing. Aggression in this context leaves little room for dialogue, or love for that matter.
The second option is always tempting… “Oh, it’s not as crazy as it sounds, promise!” Although the Bible says that the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, there’s always this hope that one can make it sound less divine and more doable. If I can make the Gospel more approachable, make the road less narrow, then certainly my listeners will more readily receive the message (and me!). But then what’s to be made of their concept of this so-called Christianity I’ve presented? They’ve only been deceived into believing in a deficient form of godliness. How is that any different from a cult? The stakes are high and the message requires faith. Presenting them as otherwise robs the message of its intrinsic power and stunts the growth & effectiveness of those who subscribe to it. Protecting the reputation of the Gospel (or more likely my own) by making it more “believable” is an incredible disservice to the Kingdom of God and its advancement. But the trap is there, and it’s rather attractive when you’re feeling outnumbered and ridiculed. I’ve fallen prey to it and I’ve repented for it.
I’ve had my fair share of hurt feelings in response to remarks my students have made. It’s easy to take things personally, especially when you feel like your very reason for living is being called into question. When faith is simply a compartment of your life that’s safely confined to Sunday mornings, it’s probably easier to shake the assault. But when you’ve allowed faith to infiltrate every fiber of who you are – your entire identity and purpose hinging on its veracity – opposition can feel quite intense. Being the fighter that I am, my first inclination is to cry. “Why are they being so mean to me!?!?” (I know, I’m very tough. This is when my big brother would usually come in and beat up whoever’s picking on me.) I’ve fought back tears on several occasions and replaced them with my brave face. The problem with giving into hurt feelings or offense is that it inevitably leads to the fourth option.
Dwelling on how bad opposition feels can lead to some serious compromise by way of backing down for acceptance’s sake, or building walls for safety’s sake. Now I’m a big fan of acceptance. I like being liked. But the problem with standing for something is that there will absolutely be people who don’t like you. They won’t agree with what you believe. They may think you’re perfectly tolerable, but your faith makes you an outsider and therefore a liability. To combat this, one can “tone down” their religiousness in order to find social acceptance. I’ve been guilty of this, mostly in not speaking up when misconceptions or poor opinions of God surface. Rather than call people out, I sit back in passive observance repressing any hint of zeal so that I can avoid being perceived as too devout. I don’t want to be one of those “weird” Christians. Of course afterward, the face I saved seems pretty petty, insignificant and horribly selfish. Another way to ensure social self-preservation is to build walls to keep the opponent out. They can’t reject me if they can’t get in. If I can keep my faith-life concealed then it’s safe from any scrutiny and I am safe from feeling bad. Win-win. Right?
Obviously the best option here is number five. In the face of opposition and ridicule, the absolute best response is to graciously impart truth. Hands down. This is what Jesus did. He was never defensive or argumentative. He didn’t shrink back or water down His message so He could enjoy the good graces of society. Jesus, full of grace and truth, spoke with boldness and conviction and was always exactly right. Every time. (Can you imagine living in the freedom of knowing that what you say is exactly what needs to be heard? How incredible!) When I choose any other option, I am choosing fear. I am choosing what appears to be safe or more acceptable. But at what cost? Is preserving my feelings worth leaving others in darkness? The choice is clear, but like I said, the stakes are high.
I have not been consistently good at graciously imparting truth while here in Qingdao. I’m sure there is so much more I should have said. I’m certain there are opportunities I let pass, relationships I didn’t seize, and conversations I misdirected. But I know that nothing I’ve done here is without purpose, or at the very least redemption. I mean, this blog entry alone proves that I’ve learned something through this process. And I will say this: facing opposition has solidified and reinforced my faith in immeasurable ways. It’s challenging and sometimes frustrating, but I have never been so sure of in Whom I believe. I’ve never been so sure of His love for mankind. I’ve never been so sure of His patience and affection for me. And while I haven’t quite mastered the art of sharing the Gospel, I know that HE is ever at work in and through me, and as I take bold and sometimes fumbling steps of faith, He is gracious to redeem and empower my feeble efforts.
I’m pretty sure that means I could give Bill Maher a run for his money.