Sunday, August 28, 2011

God's Publicity Team

Sometimes people in evangelical communities start wondering, aren't people peeved by us getting in their faces all the time? Do their looks of awkwardness and slight revulsion actually mean that they really don't like me? What if I'm just bothering everyone, and getting nothing done?

The answer goes something like this.

One day, they will thank you. Right now, they're probably annoyed at you. It's because they don't understand, because the world has twisted their wicked minds. You look like someone who is just mouthing off, like a salesman who is coming up to your door and really just cares about your money. But in ten years, when they're in their darkest hours, they're going to remember Jesus. And they'll remember you. They'll know that this is the way to go, that they have to accept what you told them a long time ago, and they'll thank you. You will have saved their lives, and they'll know that. Had you not come along, they would never have found eternal life.

In reality, what I think happens, is that most people of reasonable wealth and support will in fact go to their usual pillars of strength to deal with things. They will probably find nothing particularly life-changing about the idea of Getting Religion, especially the kind that will knock on their door to tell them about JEEEEE-zus (you know the pronunciation I'm talking about). They will go to their therapists, or their friends, or their family, or whatever. In short, they'll go to something they know will get them results. If you look at lots of conversions, especially in the evangelical arena, you don't get people converting to Christianity based on happy days in church with their believing family. You get people converting out of pure desperation, out of those moments when their parents just died and their house was lit on fire and they got cancer and they DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO EVERYTHING HAS FAILED ME. When all their standard supports are screwed, then they Get Religion.

Not everyone has these moments. I'm fairly sure most people in America don't have the bottom-dragging moments that are so down low that even their friends and psychiatric hospitalization can't save them, or else it doesn't actually seem like the right option.

In the end, it honestly seems like God needs a different publicity team. No, people are pretty much not going to remember that you were the one knocking on their door with a Bible in your hand, except to say that you interrupted their dinner and that they shut the door on you. People are getting a really bad impression of God's awesomeness, from these people annoying the heck out of them.

Here is something I've realized. God had a really sweet evangelism team going on with the Apostles. Even before that, He has always thrown out a pretty cool set of things to convince people. Let me recount a few of them.

- Pharaoh has God's people all locked up. Moses says, dude, let my people go, slavery sucks. Pharaoh says, Screw you, no. So Moses prays and God says, Here you go, smack your staff into the river, let me turn it to blood so we can freak out the Egyptians and they'll see how much I'm better than their false gods. So Moses does a bunch of things like this, and finally Pharaoh gets pretty darn terrified and lets the Israelites go. (Simplified version, of course.)
- Some priests of I think Baal say, Hey Elijah, our god is better than yours. Elijah says, You're totally wrong. They say, Okay, we'll have a contest, see whose god is better. Elijah puts down an altar, the Baal guys put one down, they both try to call down heaven's fire to consume the sacrifices on the altar. Baal doesn't answer. God swamps the altar with flame, incinerating the rock into slag and vaporizing the sacrifice.
- Blasting forward, we get to Jesus. He spent 3 straight years schlepping around the Middle East, doing all kinds of crazy shenanigans every time someone of interest drew near. A blind guy touches him? Jesus makes some mud, smacks it on his eyes, tells him to go wash off. He does. He can now see. Some guys haul their paralyzed buddy up to a rooftop and lower him down right in front of Jesus. Jesus says sweet, here you go, all your sins are forgiven and by the way, get up and walk. A woman has had bleeding problems for ages. She pokes his cloak hem. She is healed. Some women are wailing about their dead family member Lazarus, a guy Jesus knew. Jesus is pretty sad, and he cries for a while, and then he goes to the tomb and summons Lazarus out of there. Everyone laughs, but Lazarus comes walking out totally okay. Jesus is so radical that people want to kill him, but He is so innocent that no one can find a good reason to do it. It's crazy stuff.
- Thomas has some issues with Jesus rising from the dead? No problem; Jesus shows up and tells Thomas to poke his scars. Here you go Thomas, you don't have to guess anymore. I'm right here. Yep.
- Even farther forward! The Apostles go out and do all kinds of miracles, healing the sick, all that good stuff.

If you ever had any doubts back then, from what I can tell, you tended to fall into a few categories: people who didn't see the miracles and thus didn't have to confront them, people who thought Jesus got his powers from demons, or people who thought he was an illusionist or a sham. But really, physical hard proof formed a pretty serious backbone of Jesus' ministry, and also that of the Apostles. There was a lot of storm-calming, life-saving, sickness-healing, sin-forgiving awesome going on. Say "Jesus is a sham" to those women mourning Lazarus and having seen him off to his tomb blue and pasty and without a pulse and having been wrapped in pounds upon pounds of burial linens and spices. Say "God's not real" to people who have seen Heaven's fire summoned out of the clear blue sky, right in front of their faces, with no technology worth speaking of that can do such a thing.

Nowadays, we don't have that. God's publicity team is limited to people's very personal, unverifiable testimonies. It's nice that your mother's sister's aunt got healed, but we don't know that. Plenty of people have claimed all kinds of divine healing.

It's made even worse by evangelical "healing sermons," where at the end, people are called up to the altar and essentially promised healing through prayer. It inevitably doesn't work for your normal person who is Praying Really Hard. I was about 12 when I took my friend Nicole up to the altar, hoping that the arthritis that screwed up her hands would be healed. I genuinely believed it was going to happen, no really, seriously, and so did she. We both rushed up there and threw ourselves at the stairs to God's altar.

Nothing happened.

This isn't good PR for the heavenly forces. Really, it isn't. If God doesn't answer someone's prayer for a lottery win, okay, that makes some sense. But if someone has cancer, hand-wrecking arthritis, leukemia, epilepsy, a hell of a case of asthma that isn't life-threatening but still sucks...this is the kind of stuff Jesus healed in the past.

So where are God's big PR stunts now? Where are the miracles that convinced everyone to believe, that separated Jesus from the snake oil salesmen who just wanted your money and attention? That's how Jesus got followers before, and if He really wants to convince the entire world, I'm fairly sure that's what it takes to get humanity to care. If lots of people didn't believe when there were miracles, it's going to take -- pun entirely intended -- a miracle to get them to believe now. It's even hard for the believers to keep believing, when sometimes the only real benefit to it is the hope that they'll have it better than they did before. Sometimes they don't. It's a really difficult thing. the end, evangelicals are not really what we need as God's PR team. Works well for the desperate, not so well for those who are on average content with their lives.

Why fix what wasn't broken?

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