Something has been nagging at the back of my mind since the Bell-ruption that flared up a month ago. And no, it doesn’t really have much to do with Bell, his fans, or his opponents. Rather, it is about an old chestnut that always comes up: “It’s because of people like ____ that Christians have such a bad reputation.” Anything scandalous, wicked, hateful, tacky, cheesy, or merely inconvenient is prone to have that sentence thrown at it. It’s almost one of the Godwin’s Laws of contemporary Christian disputes. The longer any Christian dispute goes on, the odds of someone saying it approaches one. Even if only in an attempt to end that stupid thread already. (It might not even be that new, even if it has a special appeal right now. Constantine actually said something very similar about the first phase of the Arian controversy.)
Instead of Bell, I want to use street preachers as my hook. (Partial inspiration here, and this helped.) Particularly, the Berkeley street preaching scene, and the response from the Berkeley evangelical scene. Thus, my reflections criticize myself and my close friends. Is that fair?
Now, I could focus this post on how “ruining our reputation” is often a copout, either to avoid an unwanted conversation, to silence someone we find annoying or inconvenient, or as a substitute for making a more substantial argument. Or I could point out the ironic incivility with which it is often used. Both are true, within their scope. But they do not get at what I think is the biggest problem of the Christianized appeal to embarrassment. Which is that too often, the “discrediting the gospel” claim is focused on the wrong things, to our own discredit.
One of the less-known facts about downtown Berkeley is that it’s swarming with street preachers. Of course, the Sproul Plaza–Telegraph Ave. corridor of Berkeley usually contains people seeking converts for every cause under heaven. The Greenpeace activist jostles with anti- and pro-Israel demonstrators, who compete for space with the Lyndon LaRouche tract-passers. People advertise for the latest book-reading group at the Maoist bookstore around the corner. It’s the colorful legacy of the old Free Speech Movement. And that same stretch of land is a favored ground for street preachers and tract ministries. The most mainstream group commonly seen is Jews for Jesus, but I have seen everything from guys carrying those signs with lists of sins that merit eternal damnation, to Sacred Name Movement types, some “black Jesus” groups (“White Jesus is Antichrist!”), some guys with literal “Get out of hell free” cards, to that hard to categorize old guy, plugging away every day with a Bible and a smile.
And they cause great consternation among evangelicals in the UC Berkeley student body, the nearby schools, and the surrounding community. The main complaints are 1) that it confirms stereotypes, and 2) that it by association hinders one’s attempts at friendship evangelism and being a winsome model of engaged Christianity. Those are legitimate complaints, but there is a real problem to these emphases. And it’s the same problem for both. When that’s your main complaint, then suddenly the needs of the gospel line up perfectly with one’s own social needs and anxieties.
Think about it. For a young evangelical in a progressive town, especially one who is studying at a highly secularized university or a proudly progressive (theologically, socially, politically) seminary, escaping stereotypes is a real concern. You need to establish yourself as reasonable, academic-minded, and not like those embarrassing fundamentalist stereotypes. And what complicates those efforts more than your classmate gawking at a tract that gives a precise and immanent date for the end of the world? This is not entirely a bad thing, I might add. There is real value in being present and being other-than-expected. But, when the needs of the kingdom seem to line up so perfectly to our personal concerns, it’s time for a good look in the mirror.
Because there is a bigger problem to the bad (as opposed to merely cheesy) street preacher. Most of them are teaching false doctrine. Seriously false. Cultishly false. Any convert they win is little helped by their spurious creed, unless God miraculously causes them to hear the true gospel instead of the nonsense on offer. But if someone rejects their false message, they will probably assume they have rejected actual Christianity. They are slightly more inoculated against faith in Christ. So, this class of bullhorn roarers spiritually harm their listeners either way.
It’s similar with the cheeseboard sign of sins types. They (usually) talk only about the sins, with perhaps a perfunctory “repent” thrown into some corner. But they don’t talk about biblical repentance. Their message is, at least implicitly, pure works-righteousness. At best, they are only presenting the pre-gospel. The initial declaration of Law, so that the riches of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation to God can be understood. The actual bulk of the Gospel is relegated to follow-up. If that. So, again, either way their hearers do not hear the word of life. By any ordinary means, their proclamation can do their hearers only harm.
So, the complaint is not that most of those “evangelists” are doing no real Christian evangelism. Or that they offer no true guidance to lost sheep. No, the crying problem is that they make those of us with a personal stake in image-consciousness look bad. Making the Gospel look bad pales in comparison to preaching a false gospel, or a defective half-gospel. So what does it say about us when we complain only about the half that affects us and our personal agendas? Which drives the complaint more, the Gospel’s discredit, or our own? That is something we all should consider the next time we’re inclined to complain, “But you’re making Christians/Christianity look bad!”
(And note, this is about self-evaluation. I’m not trying to invent a new Internet fallacy.)