In 1988, MCA/Universal released a film by director Martin Scorsese based on Nikos Kazantzakis's 1960 novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Millions of American Christians were outraged, most of them without ever having seen the film, or knowing anyone who had. They protested bitterly that the film, its director, and its distributors were guilty of blasphemy, of shameless and public scorn toward the truth about Jesus.
Christian leaders who were spearheading the attack on the film saw the controversy in clear-cut terms. Their side, committed to holiness and truth, was victimized by the profit-hungry, cynical, and impious Hollywood establishment, with the rest of the mass media siding with their L.A. colleagues. Although that characterization has elements of truth, there are many ironies in The Last Temptation affair that make it a microcosmic example of the great temptation facing American evangelicals. Stated simply, that temptation is to become so preoccupied with power in the service of holiness and truth, that holiness and truth themselves have become eclipsed. As more and more Christians succumb to that temptation, a further problem is increasingly evident: theology, the biblically rooted study of God, his Word, and his Will, is gradually replaced by ideology, a system of assertions, theories, and goals that constitute a socio-political program.
Of course, it is not intrinsically wrong for Christians to secure and exercise temporal power, whether political, economic, or cultural. But Christians can too easily be tempted to throw their political or economic weight around when other responses would be more prudent. The dominant response by Christians to The Last Temptation of Christ (or at least the most well known and hence most public response) can be characterized as attempts at economic coercion, with the most publicized being an offer to raise millions of dollars to buy the film from MCA/Universal in order to burn the negative and all the prints.
Meanwhile, a group of evangelical leaders banded together and called for a boycott of all MCA-owned businesses, the principal intent again being to prevent the film from being seen. It was reported that a number of Christian leaders were "mounting a nationwide effort involving hundreds of Christian groups and costing millions of dollars to mobilize national pressure to stop the release of the film." They also didn't want "impressionable viewers to receive a twisted view of Christ that would keep them from faith in the historic Jesus."
Some even suggested a boycott of the film's distributors. One boycott advocate argued:
We must send this unmistakable message to the producers and directors at Universal: "If you continue to assault the Christian system of beliefs and undermine the morality of our children, it will cost you dearly at the box office. It will decrease the profits of every business you own for years to come." There's nothing unchristian about that position in a free enterprise system.
At the time of the protest, I wondered whether such tactics might unwittingly attract more attention to the film than it could have hoped to gain on its own. The nature and style of the protests against the film were clearly intended to get maximum publicity; after all, a boycott is not at all effective unless it is well publicized. If it is true that consequences matter at least as much as intentions, and if the goal was to minimize the spiritual damage done by the film, its militant critics must be willing to entertain the question of whether they did more harm than good, whether more people saw the film than would have if a large public protest had not been staged.
The Hollywood sages know that there is no such thing as bad publicity, that being banned in Boston or anywhere else is much more likely to increase box office revenues than reduce them, and that the worst thing that can happen to a movie is to be ignored. I have since heard reports that MCA/Universal executives, fearing a huge loss on a boring and esoteric film, deliberately leaked advance information about it to Christians, hoping for exactly the sort of response they received. Whether or not the report was accurate, surely it is possible that evangelicals played right into the hands of the publicists for The Last Temptation of Christ.
If the goal of the Christian protestors was to remove stumbling blocks to acceptance of the gospel, one must ask whether the protests themselves did not produce a significant and unnecessary obstacle for many. "Here come the 'born-againers,' again," one can hear the cynical pagan sigh. "All they ever do is tell us what we can't do, can't see, and can't believe. They just want to control everybody." The outcome might have been avoided if the organizers of the protest had been receptive to proclamation as an alternative to protest.
An alternative way of preventing the film from becoming a source of deception would have been to explain to people who the real Jesus is. The most powerful activity of the church in this world is the proclamation of the truth, even if that brings persecution, as it has again and again throughout history. The apostle Paul could have organized a boycott of the craftsmen who manufactured the idols that populated the Athenian cityscape (Acts 17). His response, however, was more creative, in the fullest, life-giving sense of the word. In many ways, organizing political and economic pressure does not require nearly the amount of energy, time, and commitment to the long-term success of the gospel as being "prepared to give an answer [apologia, meaning "reasoned defense in a court of law"] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15).
That approach was taken by a few Christians in the furor over The Last Temptation of Christ, but such efforts were few in number. I seriously doubt that many Christians agitated about the film gave greater attention to the history of the church's effort to formulate the biblical doctrine of the Person of Christ. How many adult Sunday school classes examined the debates that culminated in the definition of the council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, or Anselm's argument about the God-man Jesus? I have little confidence that many Christians took the challenge this film presented seriously enough to gird up their intellectual loins to be able to explain to their neighbors or colleagues the significance of Jesus' humanity or the reality of his temptation and his sinlessness. It is not enough to cry, "Blasphemy!" when one does not understand exactly what is wrong and what true statements ought to be put in its place. Because of that doctrinal ignorance, many who publicly denounced the film as blasphemous were also thoroughly unsuccessful in explaining to the public what blasphemy is, the sad result being that blasphemy was interpreted as being "what those born-again Christians don't like."
Generally speaking, the response was framed in terms of protest rather than proclamation. The goal of spiritual damage control was quickly understood to mean the exertion of economic pressure. But such an action is civic and commercial rather than spiritual and ecclesiastical. The means it employs (press releases, demonstrations, and boycotts) are political and economic means. Although such actions may well be permissible, given the dynamics of our culture, they may not be beneficial (cf. 1 Cor. 10:23), as matters spiritual and transcendent are all too easily obscured by a public relations firefight.
When the church condemns blasphemy, it is acting in its authorized role as a unique spiritual agency established by Jesus Christ, a role that transcends political and cultural boundaries. The church represents God's interests, not its own. It is never merely one power bloc among other interest groups, jockeying for position in society. Whenever it has behaved as such, it has always lost sight of its ultimate ends.
Many commentators at the time of The Last Temptation's release noted the hypocrisy of Hollywood and its allies in championing the cause of a film so offensive to Christians, when it would never tolerate a comparable assault on the sensibilities of blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or other American "communities." Why can't Christians be accorded the same "sensitivity" the media and other cultural elites extend to various minority groups? That argument may be sound, but it is also unwise. For by defining Christians merely as an interest group (better suited to a movement than to a church), one thereby legitimizes opposition to Christianity by other interest groups. The truth of the gospel, including the truth about who Jesus was, is thus perceived as partisan instead of transcendent and universal. In that way, ideological concerns, the concerns of "our group," supplant transcendent, theological concerns. Such an approach unwittingly gives encouragement to those hardcore ideologues who maintain that religious matters are mere expressions of political and economic interests. Thus, the secular cynics simply see our commercial pressures as nothing more than an economic power grab.
In adopting this strategy, the objective of condemning blasphemy was effectively pre-empted. Christians ought to denounce blasphemy not because it offends them, but because it offends God. By defining the issue in terms of intolerance and insensitivity, the evangelical response made The Last Temptation affair into a matter of competing civil rights: under the First Amendment, Christians have the right to protest, but Martin Scorsese also has the right to make the film.
What would have happened if MCA/Universal held a press conference and announced their willingness to produce and distribute a film about Jesus that satisfied the evangelical market? Their decision is a combination of public- and profit-mindedness. The evangelical community takes the company up on its offer and uses the money raised to buy and burn The Last Temptation of Christ to finance instead a film based on the gospel of John. Two years later, the film premieres at a gala opening in Wheaton, Illinois. But the film's debut is tarnished in the press by reports of anti-Semitism in the script. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee strongly protest certain scenes in the film that are extremely offensive to Jews. As a result of the protests of the Jewish community, most theaters refuse to show the film.
It seems the script included much of the episode recorded in John 8, where Jesus confronts the Pharisees and challenges their identity as children of Abraham.
If you were Abraham's children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God. This Abraham would not do. You are doing the deeds of your father. If God were your father, you would love me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God. But you are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father.
If you live by the boycott, you may die by the boycott. If you present yourself merely as one of many patches in the pluralist American crazy quilt, you must behave with the same decorum you require of others. If you try to use coercive economic means to prevent a false messiah from being presented in 70 millimeter Dolby stereo, then you should not expect the economic freedom to present the true messiah in cinematic glory, if that presentation is as offensive to some fellow citizens as Scorsese's presentation is to you.
As compelling as the case might be for Christians to adopt the tactics of Cesar Chavez, it seems that there are great risks in encouraging the perception that they are just another special interest group. Although one might respect the intentions of people who promote them, the use of boycotts in the name of Christ is always liable to distract attention from the prophetic, authoritative proclamation of truth and repudiation of error that is the first duty of the church of Jesus Christ. It suggests that Christians are to be identified essentially as part of a political movement, rather than as part of a spiritual body.
Some Christians confronting our culture have adopted the slogan of "taking every thought captive for Christ." They rely on that slogan as a mandate for the establishment of coercive mechanisms that prevent the public display of unchristian thinking. But that slogan is only a partial quotation of Paul, who spoke of "taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ." The captivity Paul has in view is not cultural hegemony, but repentance that produces obedience. It is achieved not by political coercion, but by the power of the Spirit. Earlier in that passage, Paul also noted that "though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh."
If the tactics of the parachurch dominate Christian activity as it confronts a post-Christian culture, protests and politicking will loom larger in the public mind than the proclamation of the church. If public protest gives the impression that Christians are principally concerned about power and about their own standing in society and in the political order, it will become that much more difficult to take thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. The boycott attempted to render judgment on MCA/Universal by a jury of angry consumers. That is a fine way to distract New York and Hollywood executives from contemplating a judgment that will render all profit and loss statements meaningless.
What happens when, from within a Christian movement, one believer feels compelled to raise theologically based objections to some action or a statement made within the movement? I have heard Christians say, for example, that it is unwise to raise theologically based (i.e., biblically based) criticism of Operation Rescue because "they're on our side." I suspect that such sentiments are common within the pro-life movement, which often depicts itself as a Christian movement. But isn't that to allow ideology to replace theology? Doesn't that involve the eclipse of truth by the pursuit of power?
It is a fact that modern evangelicalism has tended to be a subculture concerned more with doing than with knowing, with orthopraxis (right practice) rather than with orthodoxy. There has always been more concern with quick, practical solutions than with careful theological reflection; more emphasis on personal testimonies than on apologetics; a tendency to interpret Christian experience in terms of a subjective "commitment to Christ" rather than as the life of faith as an elected gift of a sovereign God. Within evangelicalism, there is more regard for extemporaneous prayer than for creeds and confessions, more respect for believers who are practical successes--such as Christian fullbacks or Christian rock stars or successful Christian businessmen--than for Christian thinkers. Evangelicals have disagreed on the nature of the atonement, on the meaning of the sacraments, on whether or not one could lose one's salvation, on eschatology, and many other doctrines significant to the lives of individual believers and to the church. Yet they agreed that to be a good Christian meant that you didn't play cards, go to movies, or drink alcoholic beverages. Behavior patterns not even discussed in Scripture become more "the tie that binds" than the belief system that is the entire substance of Scripture. One is most trusted in evangelical leadership if he adheres to social, cultural, and political conservatism, regardless of whether or not he can define "justification," which, according to Martin Luther, was "the article by which the church stands or falls."
It is one thing to put aside theological differences about sacraments, spiritual gifts, church order, or the nature of sanctification for the purpose of a joint evangelistic campaign. That is how modern evangelicalism has grown, whether through Billy Graham's ministry or through groups such as Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, or Young Life. But what has happened too often is that evangelical Christians have wrongly concluded that what one believes about sacraments, charismata, and other controversial issues does not matter (at all), that it is really more Christian not to have any opinion on such things. Thus, there is no sacrifice involved in putting aside theological differences for a common cause; doctrinal distinctives are simply treated with indifference. This being the case, what is to prevent the evangelical movement from becoming as theologically vacant as the liberalism it once denounced?
Peter Leithart, a Presbyterian pastor, has written that evangelicalism is "maintaining high political visibility" while it is "increasingly doctrinally pluralistic." The early church was accused of cannibalism and incest, because it took its sacramental life and its fellowship so seriously. "Today," writes Leithart, "the world views the Church as an interest group, intent on seizing political power." That is certainly a gross distortion, but it tells us something important not only about the world's own obsessions, but also about the "face" that the Church is presenting to the world. By contrast, the ancient slander shows that pagans, if they knew anything at all about the Church, knew that the Church gathered to eat and drink the flesh and blood of her Savior and greeted one another with a kiss of peace. The world perceived the Church as a liturgical, not a political, community because the Church's public presence was primarily liturgical. (1) Leithart suggests that the church will know it has recovered a proper sense of its mission when "the accusation of cannibalism regains currency." (2)
Nietzsche warned us about it a century ago. As far as most of the culture is concerned, God is dead. Why, then, should the culture be anything other than hostile to God and His truth? The problem is a lot more complicated than a movie here or an abortion clinic there. Those are symptoms of a secularized culture, and just as the problem is complicated, so the solution must be long-term and serious. There must be a renewed commitment to Christian discipleship, particularly with regard to the life of the mind as we wrestle with the intellectual idols of our time. The church had well over a century to prepare for this moment, a time when the only cultures that act from religious motivations are Islamic. But instead of preparing, instead of praying and weeping for the awful tragedy of an atheistic society and developing reasoned defenses, we sported bumper stickers that taunted, "My God is Alive. Sorry About Yours."
In the face of the loss of cultural hegemony, conservative Christians are easily tempted to try to recover lost cultural ground by winning elections rather than arguments. Christianity once had cultural power. It has lost it. Therefore, we need to try to get it back, to recapture the culture. The means that are suggested for doing that are almost always political organization and the consolidation of power. Like most Americans, we believe that political solutions are ultimate solutions. But politics is more an effect of culture than a cause. People do not want easy access to abortions because laws are liberal; the laws are liberal because people want easy access to abortions. Of course, law does have some tutorial effect; the law is one piece of data that forms public opinion. But compared to, for example, the mass media, the law is not all that powerful or as persuasive, and is rarely as decisive a factor in shaping public opinion as it once was.
Those who defend the tactics power argue that we are in a war, and that wars require fighting. The question, however, is not whether or not we are in a war, but what kind of war, and what kind of weapons are likely to be successful. The church is always at war, but it is a spiritual battle that requires spiritual weapons; the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and the sword of the Spirit.
But Christendom was a cultural phenomenon, not simply a spiritual one. The death of Christendom is not the death of Christianity; we must not confuse that. Christendom was not the church; it was a generally friendly cultural setting in which the church lived and breathed. What we are seeing now is only the death of a culture with a mixture of Christian and pagan assumptions. In fact, one could argue that the death of Christendom (or the death of a supposed "Christian America") is an opportunity to preach Christ clearly without the confusion of cultural assumptions. However, that means that the church has lost a longtime friend whose tutelage was repaid with defense and an honored seat at the head of the cultural table. It is sad, but not fatal.
Though the spiritual war involves the culture and intersects with cultural issues, it is not a war for the civilization or for the country that most concerns the Christian. It is not the struggle for the customs, morals, laws, and politics of Christendom, but the struggle for the minds and hearts of men and women, many of whom have never heard an intelligent presentation of Christianity throughout the course of their lives.
At the same time, the struggle for the mind and heart of our culture will have an unavoidable effect on the culture. In this secondary sense, we are engaged in a battle for civilization. Civilization is not the kingdom of God, but civilization serves the kingdom of God. Not only is the advance of the gospel served by civilization; establishing institutions that are ordered and that reject barbarism is also an important way of loving our neighbors, and hence obligatory for all believers, even if Christian discipleship is not served by it. Surely we ought to be more preoccupied with serving our neighbors than with ruling them. The involvement of Christians in cultural and civic life ought to be motivated by love of neighbor, not by self-interest--not even by the corporate self-interest of the evangelical movement.
So the death of Christendom (which extended into the West the concerns of classical civilization) tempts evangelicals in at least two ways.
First, they are prone to confuse the recovery of civilized behavior as a distinctively Christian crusade and to attach all of the rhetoric and emotion of defending the kingdom of God to the imperative, but lesser task, of driving out the barbarians. Second, they prosecute this crusade (which they identify as spiritual) using political means. In the first error, the spiritual is reduced to the cultural; in the second, the cultural is reduced to the political.
Following this two-stage transformation, distinctively Christian principles and duties are in danger of being compromised or confused with legitimate but secular concerns; theology is reduced to morality, and then morality is reduced to ideology. The advance of the barbarians, whether they be in abortion clinics, university English departments, or multinational corporations, incites great passion and defensiveness. But Christians must remain clear about who the enemy is, what the cause is, and which weapons are appropriate to which battles. Without such clarity, the church will certainly degenerate into a moral rearmament society and nothing more. That is just what theological liberalism did to many of the mainline churches. It would be a horrible irony if the moral passion of evangelicals led them to the same end.
We must recover the art of theologically informed discernment--not just for the "ivory tower" theologians but for the average Christian; to recognize the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world; and yet to accept our role in both without turning one into the other. There is nothing wrong with Christians getting involved with politics, especially in a democracy. In fact, Christians ought to be interested in every aspect of life, just as is God Himself. And yet, such involvement in culture, important as it is, is not the building of Christ's kingdom. By standing beside our Lord as He builds His kingdom, we can be assured that no film, no policy, no ideology, indeed, not even the gates of hell, shall stand in the way of our Sovereign's triumph.
This article first appeared in the book Power Religion and was used by permission of Moody Press.
Kenneth A. Myers (MA, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a founder of Mars Hill Audio and a writer/editor.
Issue: "Beyond Culture Wars" May/June 1993 Vol. 2 No. 3 Page number(s): 5-8
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