This article was written in January 1997 for What's the Point? magazine. I never heard from them after having submitted it, so I assume that their somewhat spotty timeline got the best of them and they folded. I'm publishing it on the web, since I'd rather publish it somewhere than wait forever for their reply.
When one looks at the various entertainment and educational media of today, Christian themes, characters, and topics abound. This is hardly surprising in a culture in which this religion has and continues to have a great influence. What is surprising, however, is the light in which it is cast. More often than not, Christians are portrayed as being ignorant, close-minded, or even fanatical. It seems that today, when people think of Christianity, they don't think of the teachings of Jesus, but rather the Creationist campaign against evolution, the Branch Davidians, the murder of doctors who perform abortions, and Oral Roberts' plea for money. In order to fight these stereotypes, Christians need to regroup -- they must think about how they wish the world to view them, and work hard to make sure that that image is promulgated.
It should be noted from the outset that this article makes the distinction between the most sincere followers of Jesus and that of "cultural Christianity". Many Christians have a deep faith that causes them to follow the spirit of the Bible closely. In contrast, cultural Christianity refers to the seemingly less sincere aspects of the religion. One sees this often in the solicitation of money on various Christian cable channels, as well as the large number of people who claim to be Christian but adhere only nominally to the associated lifestyle. Unfortunately, it is this version of Christianity that is most visible to people outside of the religion, and thus causes the strongest impression.
One indication of the changing attitude toward Christians is the growing sight of the "Darwin Fish" car ornaments. It seems that non-Christians have somehow identified Christians with the evolution controversy, and have also decided in favor of evolution. (Instead of taking the space here to show the unscientific nature of Creation Science, the reader is referred to Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism by Philip Kitchner.) Perhaps this decision has been based on the teaching of science classes, the defeat of Creationism in the courts, or the lack of acceptance of the theories by the experts. The recent statement by Pope John Paul II, in which he states that evolution is more than a theory, seems to support the evolutionary argument. Likewise, Christian groups such as the American Scientific Affiliation stress that creation by God is the relevant issue, and that the means are not as important.
This is not the first time that Christianity and science have clashed. In 1616 the work of Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical for suggesting that the earth was not immovable nor was it the center of the universe. Galileo was forced to recant his statements regarding the earth's rotation about the sun in 1633, and in 1664 Pope Alexander VII placed all works teaching the movement of the earth on the Index of Forbidden Books. It is not surprising that the Church would take this stance, given scriptures such as Psalms 93:1, 1 Chronicles 16:30, and Psalms 104:5, which state that the world can not be moved. Since then the movements of the planets have been decidedly proven to be as Galileo had deduced.
Christians must take a hard look at their position on evolution and decide if they wish to make this a central issue. If they are wrong, they are doing devastating damage to their image by championing pseudoscience. At best, they will lose the respect of many people in the same way that the Papal treatment of Galileo's work caused doubt regarding the infallibility of the Pope. In the worst case, they will be classified with fringe groups such as the Flat Earth Society, who deny the spherical shape of the earth.
The controversy over both the Copernican view of the solar system and evolution are a result of a literal interpretation of the Bible. The modern rise of the literal interpretation of the Bible is most closely tied with the Fundamentalist movement which was started by evangelical Protestants in response to social changes, new religious thought, and the perceived threat of Darwin's theory of evolution. Today, many people associate this dogmatic view of inerrancy of Scripture with all of Christianity, and the more investigative of them have had trouble finding support for this claim. The problems surrounding this position are most evident when one attempts to take the challenge put forth by former ordained Christian minister Dan Barker:
The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul's tiny version of the story in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened.
Since the gospels do not always give precise times of day, it is permissible to make educated guesses. The narrative does not have to pretend to present a perfect picture -- it only needs to give at least one plausible account of all of the facts. Additional explanation of the narrative may be set apart in parentheses. The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted.
If biblical inerrancy is not a central issue of Christianity, then Christians must be sure to make this explicit. If they do not, then they risk losing face over this issue.
Likewise, many people question some of the moral teachings of the Bible. Divorce is prevalent in our society, and it is certain that some of the marital breakups are between Christians, despite biblical teaching (Mark 10:11-12, Malachi 2:16). Similarly, Paul's statements regarding the way women should dress and worship (1 Timothy 2:9-14, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35) are almost never observed. Throughout the Bible, one finds references to the proper acquisition and treatment of slaves, such as that of 1 Peter 2:18-19, "Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God." Today one would be hard pressed to find a Christian that subscribes to the notion that slavery is a moral institution, despite the fact that the Bible never condemns it.
Another belief sometimes held by the "cultural Christian" is that God always answers prayers. While the more refined Christian may believe that God hears and cares, but sometimes does not act, some non-Christians and less enlightened Christians take the more simplistic perspective, which seems to be supported by scriptures such as John 14:13-14, John 15:16, and John 16:23. In today's world, people are very aware of suffering, both personal and global. If people become disenchanted with the promise of God's intervention, then they are likely to doubt their faith as well. It is common, for example, for people who have a close relative who is sick to hang their hope a scripture such as James 5:14-15, which says, "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up." If the loved one does not get better, then the anger and sadness one feels can only be made worse by the lack of help from God.
Today Christianity is more often than not associated with the negative or controversial aspects of the religion. The public's view needs to be shifted away from such a characterization and toward those attributes that have made Christianity one of the most popular religions in the world. Historically, it has been responsible for the propagation of concepts such as freedom, equality, the intrinsic worth of man, and kindness to others. And yet people today do not see churches opening their doors to the homeless as it once did, but rather Sunday worship services bordering on the grandiose.
Christians of every denomination should solidify the central tenets of their faith into a "platform" of sorts that contains the bare minimum of beliefs. Perhaps this set of beliefs could be simply those that that all the denominations have in common. But whatever its shape, the platform should be used as a guideline for action. As an example, consider Reverend Paul Hill, who first argued that the murder of abortion doctor David Gunn by Michael Griffin was justifiable homicide, and then went on to gun down Dr. John Britton and his volunteer escort, Colonel James Barrett. Certainly Christians were outraged by Hill's remarks, but even stronger, more consolidated action should have been taken to denounce his judge-and-executioner philosophy. Such issues are dangerous in terms of public image, and should be considered to be "red alerts" for the Christian community. Instead, non-Christians are left with the impression that some Christians are fanatical in their beliefs, and that others are only nominally opposed to them, or, even worse, implicitly condone such acts.
So what should the new face of Christianity look like? For the author, who is not a Christian, to suppose that he knows the answer would be extremely arrogant. Therefore consider the following to be a personal viewpoint, possibly expressed in ignorance but nevertheless representative of a non-Christian impression of Christianity.
The first shift in focus should be away from the literal interpretation of the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16, which says "All scripture is god-breathed..." need not be taken to mean that every letter of the Bible was written, copied, and translated perfectly throughout the centuries. It should be emphasized that the Bible is a guideline for moral action, and is by no means a "textbook of science", as proclaimed by Henry Morris. It is not meant to be scientifically accurate, and in many places is allegorical (such as the genesis account of creation). Likewise, God does not always answer prayers, and if He does not, it is better to trust in His Wisdom.
In dealing with the moral issues regarding the Bible, some Christians have taken the viewpoint of "divine accommodation", that God revealed himself to the ancient Israelites in a manner that they could understand. Probably the best interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16 would then be either that God accommodated himself to the social mores of the Israelites, or that He provided the thoughts of the original writers, who then colored them according to their own biases. Such a viewpoint would remove the problems raised above that people have with the factual and moral issues of the scriptures.
Christians should also be sure that others are aware of the good things that they do. All too often, the charitable work of various individuals and churches is overshadowed by the negative publicity associated with less admirable news. Christians often are able to recognize the work of other Christians, but non-Christians are not tuned to spot it. A more pro-active stance needs to be taken to fight the tendency of the media to report only the "bad" news.
Lastly, the teachings of Jesus should be that which the public associates with Christianity. The doctrine of the acknowledgment of sin, and the love and forgiveness both of God and Christians should be well known. Likewise Christians must show the differences between their religion and the others of the world, but without appearing to attack them. Without providing non-Christians with a good foundation of the core of their religion and a favorable comparison with other religions, Christians will most likely be judged by the image that is promoted by the various mass media.