December 23rd, 2013 / By: Mark Coppenger / comments
You knew Phil Robertson would get hit by the Piers Morgans (“vile bigot”) and Stephen Colberts (“backwoods Louisiana bird murderer”) of this world, but what about the evangelicals? Do we have Phil’s back, or are we a bit anxious to put space between ourselves and his rustic speech?
We sophisticated conservatives like to think we’re all about truth boldly expressed, but I think we’re developing a strong PR streak that threatens to undermine our prophetic calling. Of course, there’s the “seeker-driven” movement that majors on shiny lures to the exclusion of John the Baptist preachments. But I’m talking about the Reformed set as well.
Back in the ’90s, I attended a gathering of scholars, pastors, and parachurchers determined to lift up the five solas in an increasingly shallow evangelical church. Some pretty snarky things were said about our lesser brethren who’d fallen into mindless repetition of praise song verses, and who’d given their hearts over to slick media. Though I have my sympathies with what was said, I couldn’t help but note that the hymnbooks we were using had an elevenfold amen, and that we could just as well have met in Kokomo, but that “Kokomo Declaration” had less cache than “Cambridge Declaration.” And the stationary was cool, tastefully gray with a Latin phrase on a European-looking shield. In other words, we were pretty keen on PR too, which we could have seen if we’d dismounted our high horses for a moment.
Being cool has been a big concern for evangelicals. We know we’re not that far removed from our pulpwood-truck-driving, coal-mining, revival-planning, aisle-walking forebears who peopled a world of housewives and other teetotalers walking under the serene gaze of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” portrait. So the flight from sweaty, hanky-wielding preachers in black J.C. Penney suits, from “Bible-thumping,” “buttonholing” tithers, has been anxious and headlong.
Some run to the Kurt Cobain look, others to Moby, and still others to Tucker Carlson. (I fear some are spending more time on learning to tie bowties than on soul winning.) And apparently, social drinking has become a new sacrament, a way to symbolize and celebrate release from Pharisaical scruples.
For every pound of liberating conviction, there is at least an ounce of fear that to stick with the old ways will make you leprous in whatever circles you aspire to run, whether among TOMS-wearing greens, Napa Valley epicures, kamikaze ruggers, tenured tweedites, tattooed insouciants, or gritty urban poets. We know full well that if we identify with those who still use, without irony, the words “fornication,” “blasphemy,” or “sodomy,” we’re outcasts and will lose our platform for continuing a charm offensive for Jesus.
We’ve learned that we’d better duck if we speak bluntly of “heresy” and “perversity,” and I’m not just talking about the brickbats hurled by GLAAD. We also have to dodge jabs from those trying to impress the church’s “cultured despisers.”
Look, I’m glad we have cool dudes who play well in secular society’s sandbox. I just wish they didn’t feel so fearful of Christian brothers who don’t. And I have to wonder what they would say to Amos’s rude talk of the “cows of Bashan” and Paul’s wish that the Judaizers’ circumcision knives might slip. I imagine contemporary bloggers might cluck that such talk was not particularly helpful. And couldn’t Jesus have done better than to urge his followers to shake dust off their feet “as a testimony against” non-receptive homes? “Surely, Lord, that was counterproductive. How in the world are you going to build bridges to these people if you make a spectacle of rebuking them right off the bat?”
In our rush to palliate the sensitive (whose insensitivity to the holiness of Scripture is gargantuan), we throw Phil Robertson under the bus, as we would, I suspect Vance Havner, Mordecai Ham, and Luther, were they to rise from the grave and start preaching. But we may be outsmarting ourselves.
I’ve worked on some websites in New York and sat for hours in the company of computer mavens, whose talk of wire frames and Drupal was mystifying. After one session with young, yarmulke-wearing “geeks” in New York, I found myself on the elevator with them. I praised their savvy, to which they responded, “Thanks, but there’s a lot left to do.” I said, “Well, we’ll just have to get ‘er done.” They exclaimed, “Get ‘er done!” “Yes. You mean you’ve heard of Larry the Cable Guy?” “Heard of him! We went to his concert the other night!”
In a world of spin and enervating euphemisms, I think there’s a hunger for plain speech on the big stuff. In Robertson’s instance, he simply used clinical terms to make his general revelation case and Paul’s inerrant phrasing to bring special revelation to the table.
Some lament the way in which Phil’s demeanor and expression help “marginalize Christians as backwater.” Perhaps, but I’m more concerned about evangelicals who’ve fallen for the alchemy of PR, convinced that if we just behave ourselves, then we can turn the base metal of despised “fundamentalism” into the gold of respectful appearances on NPR.
The Dynasty’s beards remind me of an Alan Bennett routine in the ’60s English show “Beyond the Fringe.” Playing a vapid Anglican vicar, he “preached” on the text, “My brother is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” Smooth’s good, but there’s a place for Jeremiah “hairy.”
When I was PR vice president for the SBC Executive Committee back in the early ’90s, the convention excluded churches that affirmed homosexuality. Some well-meaning conservatives called this a “public relations disaster” in that it diverted attention from missions and gave us a negative cast. It occurred to me, then, and now, that for the church, when it is serious about its gospel, scriptural business is inescapably a public relations disaster. And woe to us if we ever hope to shake that legacy.
—Mark Coppenger is director of the Nashville extension center for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky.