Monday, February 28, 2005

Demagogues in the church, update

Christianity Today:

"American Evangelicalism seems to defy unity, let alone hierarchy," Time's cover story said. "Yet its members share basic commitments." And apparently its leaders share something else: with few exceptions, all of those on these media lists are themselves somehow involved in the media. The lists highlight Warren's bestselling Purpose-Driven Life above his 22,000-member Saddleback Church. The popularity of Colson's Breakpoint radio program and books make his Prison Fellowship Ministries more noteworthy than the thousands of other large parachurch ministries.

...In a sense, then, these lists are all terribly skewed. The most influential evangelical, after all, is the unsung Christian who quietly and faithfully demonstrates Jesus' love to his neighbors and coworkers. Joe Disciple can have an influence that a million radio broadcasts and books can't.

But the kind of gospel that Joe Disciple follows, how he communicates his faith, what emphases he puts in his life are increasingly determined by a media diet of both sacred and secular victuals.

In a sense, Robertson and Falwell get quoted in papers and booked on talk shows because they get quoted and booked on talk shows: Rolodexes don't get cleaned out very often. But they also get booked because they're quick with the quote: they help to feed an omnivorous media machine hungry for thoughts (or lack thereof) condensable into a dozen words that will make one side or another angry.

While I do not pay enough attention to Robertson and Falwell to say whether I'd consider them demagogues, the article does suggest that their notoriety (I don't say prominence) has more to do with their access to, and ability to use, the media than it does the example of their personal lives or their depth of insight into scripture. I have no idea how deep their theology goes, but they have mastered the sound bite and this makes them evangelical spokesmen.

I was having a conversation with a pastor some years ago, who remarked to me that Christians would be a much better witness in their communities if their giving was through (not necessarily to) their local churches instead of to parachurch ministries which have no biblical mandate; that much more progress would be made in terms of helping the poor and supporting foreign missions. While I wouldn't say that parachurch ministries have no place at all, and some are involved in activities related to the Great Commission, I do think that he was right in broad, general terms. Western (or at least American) evangelicalism is way too celebrity-based, and it is the mass media that enables this to take place. There are demagogues who keep trying to stir Christians up against non-Christians or against each other; but there are also authors, musicians and others who make good livings keeping Christians entertained. Maybe I've just been lazy, but I don't recall coming across the part in the Bible about entertainment being a focus in the Christian life.