We read a whole lot at The House Between, and the place is full of books. When we find something that strikes us as interesting, Margie and I often read it aloud to each other. Over coffee, or a meal, or simply in the middle of the day. I wish you were here to share in these brief readings, but since you aren’t, here are a few of mine. Hope you find them interesting.
Noticed: The trivialization of Christianity
Just before Easter a billboard sponsored by an evangelical church in our area appeared at a major intersection.
Jesus. Bacon. Coffee.
Join us on Easter at…
Forget for a moment the offense this will bring to our Jewish and Muslim neighbors and reflect on linking the Lord Christ with bacon and coffee. Don’t get me wrong: I like bacon and coffee and believe both can be served and eaten to the glory of God. That’s not the point. The point is that it is one thing to invite people to church on Easter; it is another to trivialize Jesus. It’s like the sorry advertisement that said, “Jesus is like Frosted Flakes. He’s great!” No, Jesus is most certainly NOT like Frosted Flakes. Not even close. He is Lord of All in majesty and glory unspeakable so that even apostles who lived with him for three years fell down as dead before him in his presence after his resurrection. There is a fine line between clever PR and blasphemy, and we should fear to blunder across it.
In a lovely Opinion piece in The New York Times (March 12, 2023), Tish Harrison Warren looks carefully at the “He Gets Us” ad campaign. Rev. Warren’s thoughtful essay, “The ‘He Gets Us’ ad campaign is trivial. Our reaction to it is troubling,” can be read here. Please read it with reflection and discernment, because she is addressing a very important issue in our media-soaked world.
About a year ago, I noticed a “He Gets Us” ad on a billboard. I gathered that the “he” in “He Gets Us” referred to Jesus, but beyond that I didn’t pay it a lot of attention.
Since then, I’ve distantly followed the ad campaign, which features television commercials, online ads and billboards, and which Christianity Today described in 2022 as targeting “millennials and Gen Z with a carefully crafted, exhaustively researched, and market-tested message about Jesus Christ.” In the ads, Jesus is portrayed as an impoverished refugee, an immigrant and a radical revolutionary committed to justice and love.
“He Gets Us” commercials ran during the broadcasts of several high visibility events in the past several months: the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, the Grammys and, of course, the Super Bowl. The Times described the campaign’s videos as connecting “Jesus to contemporary issues like immigration, artificial intelligence and activism.” Jason Vandergrounds, the president of Haven, the agency behind the ads, hopes that the campaign increases “the relevance of Jesus in American culture.” The billboards and commercials invite viewers to visit the “He Gets Us” website to learn more.
As a Christian and a pastor, I care deeply about religious discourse in America, but to be honest, it’s hard for me to care much about the “He Gets Us” ads, not primarily because of any problem I have with their content (though I may quibble here and there), but because, by their very nature as commercials and billboards, they tend toward the trivial.
Christianity is a 2,000-year-old global faith that is complex and perplexing. People misunderstand, scapegoat, co-opt, debate and believe it deeply. People live and die for it. To reduce its message to 30-second clips sandwiched between ads for snack foods, S.U.V.s and beer will inevitably be reductive. How can it not be?
Noticed: Christians and caring for the earth
In “Priyanka Kumar Considers the Birds,” a book review in The Christian Century (May 2023), Karen Milioto ends with a reflection based on the wisdom of Wendell Berry.
In The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry writes, “The culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world and uselessness of Christianity in any effort to correct that destruction are now established clichés in the conservation movement.” While much of the world laments the condition of our planet and has joined together in search of viable solutions for its renewal, the majority of the Christian sphere has remained silent, relatively unmoved, and at times even resistant to addressing the plight of God’s handiwork. As creation groans under the yoke of slavery imposed upon it by human greed, we fail to draw any connection to our vocation to steward it.
God instructed us to tend to creation and keep it, preserve it and protect it, serve it and seek good on its behalf. And nestled in the treasure trove of the gospel is the solution that the world needs: a message of radical life change, of a turning that resists the exploitive and yields a servant where there once was a wayward lord, the exact sort of transformation in human behavior required to redeem all things. Still, we too often remain silent and disengaged.
Noticed: When entertainment shapes reality
In describing today’s world, Megan Garber uses phrases that are drawn from classic works of political fiction such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. “Reality is blurred,” she says. “Boredom is intolerable. And everything is entertainment.” And that means, she argues in an article in The Atlantic (March 2023), “We’re Already in the Metaverse.” “Our constant need for entertainment,” Garber says, “has blurred the line between fiction and reality—on television, in American politics, and in our everyday lives.” And that is a massive historical, sociological, and existential change that has happened almost without anyone noticing. The implications for everyday life, faith, and political stewardship are enormous.
In September , Florida Governor Ron DeSantis arranged for a group of people seeking asylum in the U.S. to board airplanes. They were told that housing, financial assistance, and employment would be waiting for them when they landed. Instead, the planes flew to Martha’s Vineyard, where there was nothing waiting for the confused travelers except a group of equally confused locals. But those locals gave the travelers food and shelter. Immigration lawyers came to help. Journalists obtained copies of the brochures that had been handed out to the asylum seekers, and informed the public of the series of false promises through which human beings had been turned into props.
The send-them-to-the-Vineyard plan had been fueled by TV. After Texas Governor Greg Abbott began busing migrants to places where they would supposedly become a burden to Democrats, “shipping migrants” became a regular topic of conversation on the morning show Fox & Friends, and Fox News in general. The hosts filled their airtime joking about the conveyances that would be necessary to ship people to the Vineyard. The idea was repeated so steadily that, as often happens, the joke became the plan, and then the plan became the reality and then the asylum seekers, desperate and misled, were sent like Amazon Prime packages to a place selected because Barack Obama vacations there.
And the producers of the whole thing, rather than questioning the premise of their show after it did little besides expose a community rallying to help people in need, instead promised more performances. Senator Ted Cruz—whose father, as it happens, sought asylum in the U.S.—announced that another group of asylum seekers would be shipped to Joe Biden’s vacation spot. (“Rehoboth Beach, Delaware next,” he said.) Abbott continued busing migrants out of Texas—this time the drop-off location was in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’s Washington, D.C., residence. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, not to be outdone, brought audience participation to the show: A fundraising email asked recipients where Republican governors should “ship” migrants next.
“The propagandist’s purpose,” Aldous Huxley observed, “is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” Donald Trump had a habit of demeaning his opponents, en masse, as “vicious, horrible” people. The images have only grown more hallucinatory. In September, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene told a gathering of young people in Texas that her Democratic colleagues are “kind of night creatures, like witches and vampires and ghouls.”
The rhetoric may seem absurd, but it serves a purpose. This is language designed to dehumanize. And it is language that has gained traction. Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute published an analysis of QAnon’s hold over Americans. The group asked nearly 20,000 survey respondents whether they agreed with the QAnon belief that “the government, media, and financial worlds are controlled by Stan-worshipping pedophiles.” Nearly a fifth—16 percent—said they did.
This is my sixth collection of short extracts worth reading aloud. If you’d like the read the earlier ones, you can find them on this website: Sundry (1). Sundry (2). Sundry (3). Sundry (4). Sundry (5).
Photo credit: Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) (https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-reading-book-1522182/)