Buddy Christ

Part 10 in the Series:

The Bezalel Blueprint

By Don Enevoldsen

I can’t say that I recommend the movie Dogma (1999), but there are a couple of memorable scenes. One in particular comes to mind in relation to the work of Christian artists.

Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) is introduced at a press conference as the guiding force behind the program “Catholicism Wow!” He steps to the podium and raises his hands in acknowledgment of scattered applause.

“Thank you. Thank you,” he says. “Now we all know how the majority and the media in this country view the Catholic church. They think of us as a passé, archaic institution. People find the Bible obtuse, even hokey.”

Behind him, comic book style Catholicism Wow posters stand in stark contrast to the priests and altar boys flanking Glick. “Now in an effort to disprove all that, the church has appointed this year as a time of renewal,” the Cardinal continues, “ both of faith and of style.”

Turning to his left, he gestures toward a traditional crucifix. “For example, the crucifix. While it has been a time-honored symbol of our faith, Holy Mother Church has decided to retire this highly recognizable, yet wholly depressing image of our Lord crucified.”

Highlighting the problem with the symbol of the crucifix, Glick declares, “Christ didn’t come to give us the willies. He came to help us out.” And with that, two priests roll forward a seven-foot high, draped statue. As Cardinal Glick announces, “I give you the Buddy Christ,” they pull the drape away, revealing an image of a smiling Jesus. Dressed in robes of white, gold and red with an emblem of a red heart surrounded by gold rays of sunburst prominently hanging from his chest, Jesus points with his right hand and winks while giving a thumbs up with his left hand.

The Cardinal finishes his presentation with, “Look at it. Doesn’t it—pop? Buddy Christ.”

All Things to All People

Dogma pokes at a general trend in church life that began in the 1960s, not only in the Catholic church, but pretty much across the board in Protestant churches as well. Called Accommodation, it sought to address the sudden decline in church attendance and membership. Ross Douthat observed, in his analysis of the church in crises, Bad Religion, How We Became a Nation of Heretics:

“The Protestant Mainline’s membership stopped growing abruptly in the mid-1960s and then just as swiftly plunged. Of the eleven Protestant churches that claimed more than a million members in the early 1970s, eight had fewer members in 1973 than in 1965. There were 10.6 million United Methodists in 1960, more than 11 million at mid-decade, and 10.6 million again by 1970—and it was down, down, down thereafter. The Lutherans peaked in 1968, the Episcopalians in 1966, and the United Church of Christ in 1965; by the middle of the following decade, they were all in steep decline. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost about 1.5 million members between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, 60 percent of Methodist parishioners were over fifty, and there were more Muslims in America than Episcopalians.” (pp. 58-59)

In spite of occasional anomalies in the figures, the overall decline of church strength has been dramatic, to say the least. It also included Catholics and less mainstream Protestant churches as well. The transition was marked historically by the famous Time magazine cover story titled “Is God Dead?” in April 1966, which observed that the trend in church life was to adapt to the culture “in spirit as well as form.” This meant a revision of how Christians viewed themselves and their church culture, in which Christians would “formulate a new image and concept of God using contemporary thought categories.”

The “new image” took the form of accommodation, the idea that we need to be as similar to those outside the church as possible in order to show them how great church really is and not scare them away. Douthat identified it as the practice of “inclusion,” an attempt to be as appealing as possible to the lost. Include everyone by accommodating their beliefs rather than preaching against them in a judgmental fashion.

“Christianity’s problem, the leaders of the Mainline decided somewhere in the tumult of the 1960s, was that it turned too many people off; it was too rigid in its moral teachings, too exclusive in its truth claims, too remote from the problems of this world, this life, this moment on the earth. Only a more inclusive faith, they assumed, could succeed where orthodoxy was failing and sustain a version of Christianity amid the various forces undercutting the older dogmas and traditions.” (Bad Religion, p. 92)

Dogma’s satirical look at Accommodation highlights the essence of what is actually a biblical principle mostly ignored by Christendom prior to the sixties. Paul outlined the concept in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

Paul illustrated this communication technique in his presentation at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). Knowing that he was speaking to a group of philosophers who loved to argue religious topics, he sought common ground where he could establish a connection with them before he got to his main point. As he spoke, he commended their religious zeal (verse 22-23). He used allusions and references drawn from Stoic and Epicurean writings, evoking elements of their own beliefs that they could understand and relate to. (For an excellent detailed analysis of Paul’s method in this presentation, see Brian Godawa’s article “Storytelling as Subversive Apologetics,” published in Christian Research Journal in 2007. To read the article online, click here.) He even quoted from a couple of well known poets, Epimenides (“In him we live and move and have our being”—verse 28) and Aratus (“We are his offspring.”—also verse 28).

This kind of accommodation is clearly the underlying principle behind much of the effort to give church relevance. Contemporary worship music grew from this desire. The use of illustrated sermons incorporating drama groups within the church is another example. In fact this is the premise behind what has become known as the Seeker-Friendly movement. Clearly there is a biblical mandate behind it.

The problem is that Accommodation hasn’t generally worked. In spite of the efforts to connect with people outside the church, the exodus from church continued. As Douthat observed, the more that accommodationist Christianity identified itself with those outside the church, the more it became viewed as just another faction or interest group, with nothing transcendent to offer anyone. “And transcendence, it turned out, was still what people wanted from religion.” (Bad Religion, p. 106) Douthat identified the culprit as an incompleteness in the application of being all things to all people:

“Here their emulation of Jesus proved fatally incomplete. In their quest to be inclusive and tolerant and up-to-date, the accommodationists imitated his scandalously comprehensive love, while ignoring his scandalously comprehensive judgments. They used his friendship with prostitutes as an excuse to ignore his explicit condemnations of fornication and divorce. They turned his disdain for the religious authorities of his day and his fondness for tax collectors and Roman soldiers into a thin excuse for privileging the secular realm over the sacred. While recognizing his willingness to dine with outcasts and converse with nonbelievers, they deemphasized the crucial fact that he had done so in order to heal them and convert them—ridding the leper of his sickness, telling the Samaritans that soon they would worship in spirit and truth, urging the woman taken in adultery to go, and from now on sin no more.” (Bad Religion, p. 108)

What made Paul’s accommodation policy different from much of what we see today is that he knew sooner or later he would have to present the true Jesus of the Gospels and people would either embrace him or they would be offended. Paul recognized that no matter how much he used tools of communication, some would be upset. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Both Paul and Cardinal Glick tried to package the cross in a way that would make it palatable. The difference between them was that Paul still presented the cross rather than attempt to hide it.

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)

The Wisdom of Bezalel

At this point you might be wondering what this has to do with being an artist.  The answer is that artists provide both a reflection of the community in which they work and a stimulus for that community to grow and change.

One of the things I noticed in Hollywood during my seven years there was the overall attitude toward change. Hollywood is a storytelling industry. Hollywood is built on story. Without story, there is no Hollywood.

Story requires character arc. Without character arc there is no story. By definition, character arc means change. A character must change somehow between the beginning of a movie and the end. Without change, there is no character arc. This understanding is so fundamental to Hollywood culture that in the entertainment community, you cannot discuss a movie, a television show or even a documentary without addressing the arc of the characters. Story is completely dependent on change.

Without story, there is no Hollywood. Without character arc, there is no story. Without change, there is no character arc. This means that Hollywood is build on a foundational belief in the ability of a person to change.

Which is an odd thing, considering that the Hollywood community is the most fatalistic in existence. Few in Hollywood really believe that people can change.

“Whatever will be will be.”

“Que sera, sera.”

“If it’s meant to be—“

The same has become true of the church. The one place we should expect a complete devotion to the idea of change, we find acceptance instead. The basic message has become: God created you the way you are and he loves you the way you are. You do not ever have to change. This attitude has dictated the position of most Christians in Hollywood toward nearly every social issue from abortion to casual sex. No change required or expected. If God’s scandalously comprehensive love is all inclusive, then his scandalously comprehensive judgments must be irrelevant.

While it’s true that God does love us the way we are, that does not mean he created us with the intention of retaining sin. All have sinned and all need change to free us from the ongoing effects of sin. The Gospel is all about change. The message of the church should seek common ground with the world for the sake of communication, but also for the purpose of transformation.

The role of a Christian artist is to reflect this mission statement, encourage it where it is rooted, and point out the anemia of the church when it is not championed. (Note that transformation occurs in an atmosphere of intelligent, honest discussion. Blanket condemnation is even more damaging than unquestioning inclusion. This kind of honest dialogue absolutely requires wisdom to be productive.)

Artists are not merely observers of a culture. They are also historians, prophets, philosophers, theologians and psychologists all at once. For artists to create work of significance, work that impacts their world, they must develop the wisdom to understand the nuances of their message.

“For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” (Luke 16:8)

These words of Jesus to his disciples were not part of a discussion of art and artists, but they highlight in a general way a significant problem with Christian artists today—irrelevance. And that irrelevance, I believe, is connected to a lack of wisdom. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a misunderstanding of what wisdom is.

Since shrewdness and prudence are inherent in the meaning of the Hebrew word, chokmah, that is, wisdom, we should consider how that looks in real life. Bezalel was filled with this wisdom. Wisdom, for an artist, is the ability to understand the nuances of the message and convey those nuances to the community—both the church and the world—in a way that brings genuine growth—which means change. Artists are not called simply to accommodate, but also to challenge. Jesus did not just come to bring peace. (Matthew 10:34-39)

So ask yourself, as you create art, have you mistaken accommodation for wisdom and cleverness for creativity? At the same time, have you mistaken judgment for purity and hatred for righteousness? An artist without a defined worldview is not an artist at all. An artist without the wisdom to communicate that worldview will not be very successful.

Next, Part 11: Challenging the Source

Go to the beginning of the series, The Bezalel Blueprint:  Part 1, The Artist Bezalel

Do you have an additional thought on this subject? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

Buddy Christ

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