The Common Good

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Neo-Apologetics and a Return to Civility

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers
Chicago's own Dwight L. Moody, the great American evangelist of the 19th century, once said that of 100 people, one would read the Bible, and the other 99 would "read the Christian."

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Let's face it: Christianity has an image problem.

When you hear the word "Christian," what comes to mind?

Is it love, compassion, service, humility, and grace?

Or is it more along the lines of anger, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and hypocrisy?

As long as there have been Christians, there has been something called apologetics -- a veritable cottage industry of writers, thinkers, theologians, and other culture shapers who have rallied in defense of the faith.

Huge theological tomes have been written, churches have split, wars have been fought and whole peoples persecuted in "defense of the faith."

Recently, a new crop of apologists has added its voice to the mix, producing books with titles such as Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters, and They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations.

These mostly young American evangelical Christians are pleading not only for a return to Christianity's true meaning, they're calling for a revolutionary rethinking of the apologetics enterprise.

In a word, what they want to reintroduce into the public discourse about faith is civility.

Perhaps the best bit of this neo-apologetics I've seen is a documentary film called "Lord, Save Us from Your Followers." Made by a fellow from Oregon named Dan Merchant, the film has slowly been building a buzz nationwide and a loyal following of fans that presses DVD copies of the movie into the hands of anyone who will take them.

With humor and humility, Merchant traveled the country (wearing a white jumpsuit covered with religious-themed bumper-stickers), trying to answer the question: "Why is the gospel of love dividing America?"

The genesis of the film was a trip Merchant took to Ethiopia in 2004. There, he met Ethiopian Christians who endured hardships he says "would break me in half" but who were happy -- deeply joyful and fulfilled -- simply because "they know God loves them."

Merchant wanted to find out why American Christians have gone off the rails, trading the gospel of love for the gospel of "being right."

"I came back and started looking at all the self-righteous rhetoric and angry rhetoric leading up to the Bush '04 election," Merchant says. "That's the journey of this movie."

Lest anyone have the impression that Lord, Save Us from Your Followers is an attack on American Christians and Christianity, Merchant includes divergent voices from all points on the political and spiritual spectrum, from unapologetic critics such as Bill Maher and Janeane Garofalo to a whole roster of Christian pastors and church leaders, including the evangelist Tony Campolo, who has some of the best lines in the film.

In an early scene, Campolo quotes from St. Augustine, who said that the church is a "whore" but she is also "my mother."

"You're talking about the church, the unfaithful bride of Christ failing to live up to its marriage vows to the Lord," Campolo says. "For all of its whoring, it has still been that which has kept alive the Gospels' story down through the ages."

Christians need to stop shouting and start listening, Merchant says. Our culture as a whole has taken a sharp turn into incivility when it comes to discussions of religion, politics, sexuality, and even professional sports.

Some of the most effective and profound voices calling for an end to the cacophony of opinion and a return to simple graciousness might surprise you.

Jon Stewart, for instance. Merchant uses a clip of Stewart's famous appearance on "Crossfire" with Tucker Carlson to illustrate what's wrong with the quality of conversation in the public square.

"Here's what I wanted to tell you guys: Stop," the comedian tells Carlson, who continues to talk over him and interrupt with an increasingly raised voice. "Stop, stop, stop hurting America. You're doing theater when you should be doing debate. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery."

In that moment, Campolo says Stewart became "the prophet of God saying, 'We're not arguing whether you're right or wrong. We're simply saying, 'Do you realize what you're doing when you frame the discussion in such an antagonistic, polarizing, hateful manner?' "

The church is meant to be the hands of Jesus in the world, but "it's had its hands and feet amputated, and all we've been is a big mouth," Pastor Rick Warren says in the film. "Jesus didn't walk with a swagger," comedian-cum-senator Al Franken says in another scene.

Merchant interviews farmers and hipsters, preachers with megaphones and members of the cross-dressing Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco, in an effort to better understand how Christians are perceived and what can be done to right the ship.

He even sets up a confessional booth at a gay pride festival, and, rather than ask folks to confess their sins, confesses his own sins of judgmentalism, arrogance, and a general lack of the kind of radical love that Jesus demanded of his followers.

Perhaps the most powerfully moving scenes involve Christian volunteers who regularly set up camp in an area of Portland, Oregon, frequented by homeless folks, providing health care, washing and cutting their hair, even bathing their feet.

That quiet service, unconditional love, and hands-on compassion, Merchant says, is what Christianity really is.

And that's a message that cannot be heard if it's shouted.

For a DVD copy of "Lord, Save Us from Your Followers" or to schedule a screening, go online to www.lordsaveusthemovie.com.

Cathleen Falsani is the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.

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