Francis Schaeffer used to say that if he had an hour to tell someone about Jesus, he would spend the first 55 minutes of that hour listening. I thought about this a couple weekends ago when I was able to attend the L’Abri conference in Rochester, MN.
One lecture in particular has stayed with me as an example of precisely this sort of listening. It was given by Denis Haack, co-director of Ransom Fellowship, a ministry he and his wife Margie have run for over 30 years. (In fact, it was two separate lectures of his I went to which have now in my memory blended together into one, so I may be mixing up aspects of separate lectures in what follows.)
Denis opened the lecture by noting that one of the dominant narratives of our day is that we live in a time of, to use Charles Taylor’s term, “exclusive humanism.” Though he didn’t say all of this, one of the implications of this observation is that many religious people, myself among them, have gotten understandably nervous about what this ascendant humanism might mean for the future of Christianity in the US.
So far as it goes, these observations about exclusive humanism and the resulting threat to traditional religious belief is accurate. But there is an important sense in which it doesn’t go far enough. To the extent that this humanism is ascendant, particularly in our politics, we should be doing things to resist it. (This is all me, rather than Denis, to be clear.) That being said, when we step outside of the narrowly political arena and into the realm of mass culture, we start to realize something: Many of the most popular stories being written and produced right now trade in what are, at minimum, extremely traditional themes, if not explicitly Christian themes.
Superhero movies, for all their issues and all the broader problems they create for the business model of the big studios, are extended reflections on the nature of evil, the demands of justice, the importance of one’s roots, and a host of other significant questions. Both Daredevil and The Punisher raise obvious questions about politics and justice, as both series are concerned with vigilantism in a corrupt city. These stories also touch more particular contextual issues, such as the power of strong women to defend the disadvantaged. A scene like the trench battle in Wonder Woman feels especially powerful in the aftermath of #MeToo:
Denis used that clip in particular in his lecture. When I saw it then I couldn’t help thinking of the nonsense my mother protected me from throughout my adolescence. When I was younger there was a predator in our church who molested several boys before he was caught. My parents protected me from him. Later, after I left the church and had major fallings out with many of the people there, my parents and especially my mom absorbed a great deal of nastiness from the church.
The reaction to Black Panther, of course, is quite similar: to see powerful black heroes with real agency and to see a thriving country populated exclusively by black people is powerful in a world where a black man selling cigarettes illegally can be choked to death by officers while a white kid who killed 17 people can be arrested without incident.
Kyle Howard put it well on Twitter, I think:
I think the most impactful part for me of #BlackPanther was the waterfall seen shown in trailers. To see so many black people from a multitude of [real life] countries dancing w/ joy. As a racial trauma counselor, I spend the majority of my time caring for broken black people… pic.twitter.com/gXcOU0XOO2
— Kyle J. Howard 🙅🏾♂️ (@KyleJamesHoward) February 18, 2018
If we broaden our focus to include stories like Lady Bird or, working back to similar movies of previous generations, Garden State, Reality Bites, or The Graduate we find that the stories that have in the past and still do captivate many of our neighbors deal with existential questions about home and belonging and family that should be quite familiar to Christians.
All of this is, of course, not particularly mindblowing these days and drives at a fairly basic point: At bottom many of the questions our neighbors are asking and thinking about as they watch Netflix or go to a movie theatre are questions that we also are likely thinking about.
One of the truisms of our day, which tends to be mentioned almost immediately after someone talks about “exclusive humanism,” is the polarization that exists in the US, the inability of people with differing viewpoints to coexist peacefully or even have a calm conversation about their differences. There are reasons for this tension, obviously. In a fracturing society identity is a fragile thing and is likely to be assembled from the haphazard bricolage of our daily lives. So arguments that are, seemingly, about a narrow partisan issue are, in a real sense, an argument about identity. Even so, it is possible to over-state the divisions that exist between people.
In one of the lectures, during the questions, Denis shared two of the ways he starts conversations with strangers he meets while out and about. In both cases, he used conversations with baristas as examples.
The first is he’ll ask his barista what movie or TV show they’re thinking about a lot. They always have an answer. And simply by asking them about it Denis has given them a chance to open up a little and, in doing so, to learn that he is a safe person for them to talk to. He joked that many of the baristas at his neighborhood coffeeshop now come prepared for him: When they call him up to get his drink they wait and tell him what movie or show they’re into before he can even ask.
Denis also said he’ll ask baristas or servers about their tattoos. There’s always a story behind them—and often people are quite happy to share it. And with these simple questions, Denis has opened up a space for himself and this other person he just met to have a more significant conversation.
The thing that struck me about this is how simple it was. One of the unpleasant consequences of writing of the sort I sometimes engage in and that many of my friends also engage in is that it can imply that there are such deep divisions between Christians and non-Christians that this sort of candid face-to-face encounter is practically impossible. (To be clear: I’m not at all saying the more polemical mode of cultural critique I and my friends use necessitates such an idea, let alone explicitly endorses it. But when we are not sufficiently careful, we can imply it and less careful readers may well run with the idea.)
The examples Denis used in his lecture do two things to this idea: First, they show that simply on a day-to-day emotional and intellectual level, many of the big questions and topics we’re thinking about are quite similar. Second, they show how easy it can be to start up conversation, if we are simply willing to ask questions.
Schaeffer himself was, of course, very good at this. I think it is because he was curious. One does not develop the knowledge he had of art, film, and music when coming from such an uncultured background without being immensely curious. To be sure, the dangers posed by an ascendant exclusive humanism are real enough. Schaeffer himself was quite aware of that! But if we suppose that the very real cultural threats facing the church right now imply that an uncrossable abyss exists between Christians and our non-Christian neighbors we would be mistaken.