Propaganda, even if it’s true, can be bad art

At the recent ReThink Apologetics conference here in Birmingham, I had the opportunity to speak to the author K.B. Hoyle. She believes strongly that Christians need to become better storytellers. I agree. It seems as if to be a good Christian storyteller, artist, etc., one must be bad at that particular art. It need not be this way. Consider the great art, architecture, and music inspired by the story of Christianity in ages past. What do we have today that compares?

“The apologetics benefit of becoming better storytellers seems obvious. But it seems the problem of shallow, propaganda-like “art” reflects a deeper problem: Our boiled-down understanding of salvation.”

The apologetics benefit of becoming better storytellers seems obvious. But it seems the problem of shallow, propaganda-like “art” reflects a deeper problem: Our boiled-down understanding of salvation.

While teaching adult Sunday School recently, we covered some of the debate—between John Piper and N.T. Wright—on how to interpret Paul’s idea of justification and how justification relates to the Christian view of salvation. While I haven’t spent the time to be able to intelligently pick a side, there are elements of Wright’s position that are appealing.

N.T. Wright refers to contemporary Western Christians as holding a “non-historical soteriology the long and the short of which is ‘my relationship with God’ rather than ‘what God is going to do to sort out his world and his people.’”[1] He contrasts this to the historical context of the authors of the New Testament: A strong sense and an eager expectation that God would act in history to save His people from oppression and “exile,” restoring Israel to its rightful place among the nations and, of course, restoring creation to its rightful order.

If you consider the average church-goer’s account of the essentials of the gospel, it probably goes something like this: Everyone sins. Sin is deserving of eternal punishment. Jesus was the sinless sacrifice that took our punishment upon Himself so that we will not be punished.

In this boiled-down version, there seems to be no need for

  1. the Old Testament story (except perhaps to prove to us that we are sinful—which hardly seems something requiring so much time to prove),
  2. the resurrection,
  3. the Church,
  4. sanctification, and
  5. any story (that is, progress made in time) at all.

These are, I think, all wrapped up together, but I’m more concerned in this essay with the last. What are we doing here while we await Christ’s return? Why not, as we joked when I was a youth, kill every person the moment they become Christians (to avoid “back-sliding”)?

It is possible that we have taken a right doctrine (salvation being purely an act of grace from God) and have emphasized elements of it in such a way that it has become misshapen. Much of the detail of this argument is beyond my own expertise, but, again, I want simply to focus on one thing: The purpose of Christians? Or, put another way, what is our story?

Atheists have rightly criticized Christians for being too “otherworldly.” Our salvation is about “another world” or “the next life” into which we flee, away from all the sinful and despairing movements of “this world.” Nietzsche ran with this, arguing that Christians were in fact the true nihilists, seeing no meaning in “this life,” and thus despising it such that we desire to flee from it.[2] In short, salvation is found in death. (Compare how speakers at funerals talk. And then read 1 Corinthians 15.) Sam Harris has recently written the same sorts of things, though from a different angle. He claims in his The Moral Landscape that the emphasis on the otherworldly does not change the ground of morality (the well-being of conscious beings), but merely adds an element that can make us unconcerned (or even opposed) to the well-being of conscious beings in the here-and-now, so that we might achieve greater well-being in another life.[3]

“Atheists have rightly criticized Christians for being too otherworldly.”

That such a range of thinkers as Nietzsche, Harris, and Wright have voiced this criticism[4] should give us pause. But, more importantly, we should reflect on our own sense of meaning and purpose. Do we see ourselves as part of a story that is going somewhere—not to a different world in which all that is done here becomes meaningless, but is the kingdom of God at hand, among us, coming in power? Is the Holy Spirit’s work accomplishing something beyond my own “getting into heaven”? Is Romans 8:18-24 to be taken seriously?

Non-historical views of salvation encourage us to ignore what is happening in the world and the Church’s role in it. Our average Christian’s non-story is an artless mix of Disney-ification (we cannot look too deeply into the troubling parts of life for fear it may mar our happy ending) and the deus ex machina (whatever story is taking place now is miraculously fixed by an intrusion unrelated to the story itself).

But enough about that. I think this rejection of God’s work in history has, I think, encouraged us to be bad story-tellers.

Consider Christian film. As a professor who teaches apologetics, I felt it was my duty to watch God’s Not Dead. While the film contained some decent arguments on both the atheist and Christian sides, it made the story so clear-cut, the problems so one-sided, and the conclusion so “just” (the mean professor is humiliated, becomes a Christian, and dies!) and happy, that, as a story, it was terrible. It wasn’t, in fact, a story. It was a propaganda piece—sure, the central message is a true and important message, but the story came across as forced—perhaps we might say “false”—even though the information being conveyed was true.

Perhaps this is a fatal flaw in the way we approach apologetics. We are called to defend our faith, to provide reasons for the hope[5] that we have, and yet we never speak in such a way as to assert a purpose for humans now—something of value for which we can fight and, perhaps, even make a difference. Rather, everything seems crafted around 1) proving we’re right and 2) making sure individuals end up with a better after-life rather than a worse one. In fact, Christian heroism (in places without physical persecution) seems to consist of only these two elements.

Now compare this sort of semi-narcissistic, artless story with the story told by contemporary atheists—what Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age refers to as “subtraction stories”[6]: Humans were once held down by superstition, which kept them from learning, peace, health, and happiness, trapping them instead in divisiveness, small-mindedness, fear, and subjugation. But as we have been wiping away superstition, we have come to a clearer understanding of ourselves and our world better so that we, if we can only continue to boldly seek to wash away immature thinking, now stand on the edge of world peace, extended human life (perhaps eternal?), space colonization, and, in general, greater human happiness.

This “subtraction story” offers hope and opportunity for one’s life to mean something. It says history matters, that progress can be made. It is a story that gives one even now a sense of place and meaning. Christianity, as we generally think of it, offers only an otherworldly hope that makes one’s life (in the here and now) essentially meaningless. Which do you think people will find attractive? Which, given a lack of certainty about the truth of either, would one be naturally drawn to?

But neither Jesus nor his disciples preached a life of purposelessness. Yes, there is the promise of eternal life. Yes, there is the sense that nothing we humans will can make things perfect. Yes, we will all die unless Christ hastens in His return.

But eternal life, abundant life, begins now (John 10:10). And we are not just humans doing our thing, but the Church, the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23), acting in the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). And death, and its power to destroy all things, has been overcome (1 Corinthians 15).

And, of course, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19) and “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

No matter one’s perspective on the justification debate, I believe we would benefit from a renewal of the awareness of the purpose of the Church in the work of redemption that God is doing. This is not simply evangelizing, nor is it simply trying to sin a little less, pray a little more, and so forth. We inhabit the kingdom of God, and we carry it with us wherever we go. We are overcoming this world of death in bringing the power of the Spirit, the power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20).

How do we present this story? And how do we imbue apologetics with the hope that arises from story?

The answers to these questions are complex and probably beyond me. But I think there are a few things that may help.

First, do not be so desperate to have answers that balance all the scales of justice or bring everything to a happy ending immediately. What I mean by this is simple in theory, but can be difficult in practice. If there is a problem, you need not always have the answer, the explanation. If there is a question, you don’t always need the answer. Let yourself be seen as one who is, in Josef Pieper’s words, “on the way.”[7]

Let me offer an example. Some years ago, a wonderful and godly young man died in a car accident. It was a shock to everyone. It seemed (still seems) utterly unjust. At a gathering before the funeral, a woman came to the grieving mother, and to comfort her told her that God had taken her son because he was going to “turn away” from God in the future.

Note how this answer resolves all the tension, the struggle we have with the pain in life. It provides a balance to the scales of justice, and offers an already-finished happy ending to the problem.

But if all problems are solved or have already been taken care of by God, then we have nothing to do. No purpose. No story.

While death has been overcome (1 Corinthians 15:54-57), it still remains an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Enemies are meant to be fought, not embraced as saviors from possible future foibles.

So what to do with a grieving mother? Mourn with her. Give her hope in the future resurrection. And work toward a world in which death’s power is consistently weakened.[8]

Second, learn to listen to the desires, the hopes and the fears, that lie within secular stories—and speak to them. There is no question that television and films have greatly affected culture. They have done this by appealing, much better than most Christian productions, to the desires within us. While some (often most) of those desires are directly inappropriately, they are nevertheless fanned until they burn powerfully within the audience, and then often harnessed for some modern (im)moral end. Of course, often they are simply used to extract that $12.50 for a movie ticket.

“listen to the desires, the hopes and the fears, that lie within secular stories—and speak to them.”

And how do they fill us with such desire? They do not give us simple stories with simple happy endings. They show the pain of human existence, the heroics of people with whom we can identify, heroics that often fail and end tragically, and yet stir in us a respect for the nobility of even the most troubled people. We find that, whether the story has a good ending or a tragic, the people in the story found something worth risking shame, a ruined life, even death—something that is worth the risk of losing all that they previously cared about. And we, the audience, long for that kind of purpose. Yes, even we Christians long to have a purpose as noble and important as that of the X-men, the Avengers, William Wallace, and even far less savory characters. So much so that Christianity sounds dull and mundane.

What is our purpose? What drove Abraham to leave his home? To trust in the call of Yahweh to sacrifice the child of promise? What drove Moses to be willing to make demands of the Pharaoh? What drove Joshua to fight against all odds? What sustained Job even when his wife abandoned him and his friends condemned him? What gave courage to Esther in the face of an all-powerful king? How did a nobody become the greatest king in Israel’s history, fall prey to lust and murderous desire, and yet come back to repentance? What sadness and anger filled Jeremiah? How did Habakkuk remain true in the midst of vision of coming injustice? What led Stephen to praise God in the midst of a stoning? What drove Paul and Peter and so many other followers of Jesus to their deaths?

Wasn’t there something there stronger and more filled with purpose than the anemic, boiled down gospel we proclaim—where I can get saved in the next life, and this life becomes meaningless, except for a chance to share the same non-historical gospel with those around me?

While the gospel is quite simple, it is also rich enough that it should stir wonder within even the most seasoned believer. Just like a good friend of mine is able to joyfully read The Lord of the Rings every year during the Christmas season, so the gospel should have that same sense of story to it that it constantly calls us back to the wonder of God’s working in the world and in the church and in us.

Apologetics is an attempt to defend the hope that we have been given in Christ. That hope fills history, drives it, and carries us as proclaimers, warriors, and soon to be victors of a great struggle. While such a view leaves some tension in our lives and some questions left unanswered, it gives us a location in a story. And this is something we all want more than simplistic answers that drive all meaning from “this life” and “this world.”

[1] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 61.

[2] E.g. Thus Spoke Zarathustra Prologue, 3: “I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.” In Walter Kaufmann, ed. and trans., The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin, 1982), 125.

[3] He does not state this directly, but see, e.g., Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 18.

[4] Many others have as well, though I’ll simply note one exceptional book: Josef Pieper’s On Hope (Ignatius Press: 1986).

[5] Perhaps, I’ll need to write a bit about this terribly rich idea, essentially as a summary of the book referenced in the footnote above.

[6] James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 23-4.

[7] See Josef Pieper, On Hope.

[8] There are obvious domains of death (war, violence, disease, disaster, hunter, etc.), and there are less obvious domains of death (the authority of all human political structures is ultimately the power of death, exclusion from life-giving community, and all sin thrives on the power of death). We should fight against both the obvious and less obvious domains.

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Wm. Travis Coblentz

About Wm. Travis Coblentz

Travis Coblentz is the Executive Director and philosopher for Tactical Faith. Dr. Coblentz sits on the board and is a great asset in the Birmingham, AL area. He is also an Adjunct professor of philosophy at UAB.