I recently had an experience at Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox Theater that has nagged me ever since. I saw the highly-acclaimed musical “The Book of Mormon,” and contrary to expectations, did not enjoy it. I went expecting biting satire (I like satire) and four-letter words (after all, I live in 2018). The staging, the music, and the performances were all quite impressive, even enjoyable. What I was not prepared for was that I experienced the humor as simply mean and the language as over-the-top vulgar. As I was informed later, “what did you expect? The writers are the same who wrote South Park for TV.” The audience seemed to not share my discomfort but rather to heartily applaud the show. I left the theater puzzling, as I continue to do, over what seems to me actual hatred of religion. I have not had a lot experience like that…
The story line of the show is about two young Mormon missionaries assigned to Uganda. The Ugandans portrayed are desperately poor, powerless in the face of the local warlord, and deeply angry at their plight. The fictional missionaries in the show were stereotypically portrayed as naïve, superficial, dogmatic and phony. The “hero missionary” is a loser among his peers but develops real relationships with the locals. And yet the script only allows him to exercise his compassion by distorting and/or abandoning his belief system. The implicit message seems to be “you can’t believe all that stuff and really care about real people and their problems.”
Of course, there are far too many instances of religions (Christianity and other world religions alike) acting in profoundly evil ways. But that is not the whole story by far. I am terribly saddened because it is lost to all but the shrinking number of “faithful” that Christian understandings are truly at the bedrock of our western society with ideals of equality, of personal freedom and responsibility. I am saddened that the compassion and sacrifice of missionaries is presented in parody rather than in celebration. I am appalled that the religiously faithful who are among the first to respond to disasters and the last to leave the victims are so easily overlooked. Hospitals, orphanages, church ministries — all have origins in Christian ideals. And yet, the angry, the fearful, the divisive and the authoritarian steal attention away from the service and compassion that mark the followers of that Jewish carpenter.
Irony would have it that the same night I was at the Fox, I had to miss the going away party for a young friend — Daniel — who was preparing to go to Uganda for real as a missionary. He is a gentle spirit, anxious about the challenges and the different culture, but eager to get involved with the people there. Daniel will teach school at an orphanage, allowing his missionary friend to come back to the states for a furlough. Both young men are natives of Rome, grew up in the church I attend and are part of what the New Testament would call the “great cloud of witnesses” to the Christian faith.
OK. Good missionary/bad missionary, so what? As is typical for me, my musings take me back to my distress at the culture wars in our society and the negative face that many evangelicals have adopted in those wars. My experience at the Fox drove home to me that my “family” is evangelical Christianity. I view the world through the lenses of that kind of religious faith. I have far more in common with evangelicals than with the truly secular. I found myself defensive and angry when I experienced actual hostility directed at religion. I wanted to say in some way, “that’s not accurate; that’s not right!”
I have a problem, though. I am a minority in my family! For all the imprecision of the labels, I am a progressive Christian, not a fundamentalist Christian. I believe that the full message of Jesus and of the New Testament requires social justice as well as personal faith and integrity. I believe that one cannot truly love God and hate or ignore one’s fellows. I believe that one must have an expansive understanding of neighbor, and must love those neighbors. I believe there is never God-approved permission to be cruel or to bully the weak or the stranger. I believe that the pathway to a deep faith lies through questions and doubts as surely as through unquestioning acceptance of the religious status quo. I have watched self-righteous preachers attack and slander men and women whom they consider theologically impure; I am aware that I am considered suspect as well. I cringe under the political attack ads that equate anything “liberal” with the worst possible intentions.
However biased that media representations may be, evangelical Christianity is too often known for the ideas and the people it is against. Report after report states that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of white evangelicals make up the political bedrock of the conservative Trump base. To adopt the language of marketing, I believe that this majority has “tarnished the brand” of evangelical, perhaps beyond repair. I am aware of many accounts of evangelicals who have struggles with their conscience in the political choices they have made, but the facts and their choices remain.
Great minds and common folk alike have many differing opinions about how to reconcile their faith and their culture. Faithful folks must keep commitments and yet remain open to new ideas and new people; it is not easy to do! However, in the overheated state of our daily interactions, I am confident that Christians will change their world only by being more like Jesus. Belligerence, power grabs and flimsy rationalizations for bad behavior and blatant lack of integrity will convince few not already of the same mind.