There’s something a little bit thrilling, a thrill mixed with sadness nonetheless, at the huge level of ignorance about the basics of Christianity among the average Westerner at the moment. And it’s a level of ignorance that is only set to increase as the church participation rate continues to decline.
While it does not augur well for the moral and ethical future that the post-Christian (anti-Christian?) secularists envisage for our new world, – given that once the root of the gospel is removed, the taken-for-granted fruit of the gospel will eventually wither and die, – it does at least raise the possibility that curiosity might be our best evangelistic friend. It does leave open the door for genuine surprise among those searching for meaning in life, who have yet not turned over the Christian stone to see what’s underneath.
This high level of ignorance about Christianity came home to me today in two ways.
First I went to the dentist this morning for the yearly scale and clean thing. My usual dentist – an older man in his early sixties – was busy, so his young, newly graduated protege, a quietly spoken polite man originally from either Singapore or Malaysia, took over the reins and the assorted torture implements.
While his dentistry was fine, his chair-side manner felt a bit like on trainer-wheels. He asked my about my weekend, what I did, and what I would be doing next weekend. All standard fare. Eat, work, sleep, play, rinse launder repeat. I guess that’s what he expected.
I told him I was at church a couple of times over Easter, that I work for a church and that on the weekend I would be going to Queensland to teach theology at a theological college.
His next question: “What is theology?”
And he asked it in a completely innocent non-Pilate kinda way. No sneering “What is truth/theology?” at me. He genuinely had no clue. I mean, like I’m usually bruising for a fight when someone asks me that. But he had a cherubic tone. And a high speed mini-drill.
I was speechless. Mainly because he was blasting my teeth with the intensity of a man Kärchering oil stains off concrete paving. But in betweenI gave him the mangled version of what theology meant, all the while assuming that my gargle and spit at the end of the session would be more comprehensible and erudite.
But yet again it struck me that even I, with all my supposed awareness of the level of ignorance in the general population about all things Christian, still hadn’t plumbed the depths. I still took some things for granted. Of course they’ll know that when I say it! They’d surely figure out that we believe that, right?
Coupled with this incomprehension, however, is a second feature of this ignorance; namely the accompanying, and therefore paradoxical, confidence of those in the mainstream media, who have no trouble telling us what Christians believe, despite being quite frankly clueless themselves.
Case in point, and my second observation: New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, or St Jacinda as she will surely become in the secular pantheon, had much to say about the Israel Folau case.
That’s fine, she has a right to do that, she’s a public figure and Izzy is after all a born and bred New Zealander who plays for New Zealand. Whoops, spot my own ignorance right there!
But it’s not so much her school-marm scold: “he shouldn’t have done it but he’s got the right to speak, but he shouldn’t have said that,“, that is remarkable. It’s the reporting of her comments by the media, as if Jacinda Ardern is some expert on the Christian faith.
So The New Zealand online newspaper Newsroom presents Ms Ardern’s credentials to comment on Folau the basis of this fact:
“Whatever she meant, she’s well qualified to have an informed opinion on Christianity given that she grew up in a religious household.”
That’s like saying since Freddie Mercury grew up Zoroastrian he’s well qualified to have an informed opinion about Shintoism.
Can’t figure out the differences between Christianity, Islam, Buddhism? Just throw them all in the the too-hard-religious-basket and do a pick and mix.
It’s somewhat ironic that, just as Israel Folau did, Jacinda Ardern grew up Mormon, and left the Mormon church in her early twenties, at roughly the same age Folau left. Though that’s where the similarities end. Folau left because he moved towards orthodox Christian beliefs (though it does sound like he’s not quite there yet, and more of that later!)
And Ms Ardern? The same newspaper tells us that she left the Mormon church because of its conservative stance on homosexuality.
Leaving aside the homosexuality question, it’s astonishing that a good quality online newspaper would assume that a young woman growing up in a non-Trinitarian heterodox sect like the Mormon church is qualified to comment about anything to do with Christianity.
Which part of Joseph Smith, a vision from an angel in the USA, two golden tablets revealing God’s true intentions for humanity and salvation dropping from heaven, gives her that right? Or more to the point, who thinks that gives her that right? Surely only those with no clue about Christianity.
I mean, the Mormons walk around our neighbourhoods, as lovely and conversational as my dentist, but with the book of Mormon, never the Bible. You can barely get them to open it.
And besides Ardern left the Mormon church before she was really getting started! If you’re an evangelical Christian reading this and you know a bunch of post-evangelicals who left the church at the age of twenty over sexuality issues, I’m pretty sure they’re not your go-to-person on the employment of the anarthrous noun at the start of John 1.
Now I am not bagging out Mormons here, they’re generally fine upstanding members of society. One of my favourite marathon runners, Jared Ward from the US, is a well known Mormon, and a Professor of Statistics at Brigham Young University (he ticks all the Mormon boxes and the stats ones too).
And have you seen the HBO series Big Love? I mean, I watched every episode. I love the late, lamented Bill Paxton in the starring role. I pretty much base my interest in Mormonism on that show. Which is exactly why I don’t qualify to be a public spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Yet somehow, a journalist and op-ed writer for a New Zealand newspaper affirms that Ms Ardern has the smarts when it comes to commenting on the orthodox Christian take on sexuality, because she grew up “religious”.
I mean, what planet is he living on? Or as the Mormon church might ask, What planet would he like to live on, because there are going to be plenty to choose from for the faithful.
It just reminds us that while we see huge difference between us and the Mormons for example, others don’t. The bloke in the street doesn’t. The couple whose door you knock to invite them to an Easter service (for Easter worshippers apparently), don’t. But more worryingly, many Christians don’t!
Alarmingly, the level of ignorance about the basics of Christianity in the gen-pop is only greater than that in the Christian church by degree, not essence. And the Israel Folau incident demonstrates this.
So all the while we’re standing up for Izzy cos it’s the Christian corner he’s fighting in, we have to admit, reluctantly, that he left one Unitarian faith for another slightly less, and very fuzzy around the edges, Unitarian expression of the Christian church, Oneness Pentecostalism.
I tend to view Izzy as on the way towards orthodoxy. He’s a non-tertiary educated bloke who didn’t get bought a copy of Wayne Grudem’s Introduction To Systematic Theology for Christmas. Give the man time for goodness sake.
His biblical ignorance may have as much to do with the general, and abject failure of conservative evangelicals to reach working class people purely on the basis of their inability to communicate the gospel across class boundaries very well. Pentecostals reach the working class (and Prime Ministers, but let’s not go there lest the secular media get hold of that one. Oh, they have already? Too late!)
Yet the level of understanding and critical thinking about the basic doctrines of the faith among middle class, educated church goers across the board is also low. And this is despite the plethora of online tools available. This leads to the obvious conclusion that many an orthodox Christian may have as little right to comment on Israel Folau as Jacinda Ardern has, simply on the basis that they have little grasp of what the boundaries of orthodoxy are in the first place.
As one middle class, well qualified, orthodox man, Carl Trueman, observed about the whole Folau imbroglio, and its wash up:
this incident appears to offer evidence of what many critics have claimed over the years: that religion is too often little more than an idiom for angry engagement in the culture wars, a means of justifying selective prejudices. But if culture wars are necessary, they are only necessary because of prior metaphysical truths which have implications for a well-ordered society; and they should never be allowed to become so important that they jeopardize or dilute commitment to Christian orthodoxy. And that means that Christian culture warriors need to be careful about how they characterize co-belligerents—lest they end up relativizing truths which cannot and must not be relativized. Of which, I would imagine, the identity of God is rather high on the list.
I think Israel was hard done by by a scorning post-Christian culture. I think he was hard done by by Christians who don’t want to be associated with him because they see the social cost of doing so, whether they agree with him or not!
But I think, in the long term, Israel will be hard done by by a church that overlooks the fact that the theology of God’s identity is integral to how we view, not just sexuality, but all ethical matters in our increasingly secular world that is busy crafting a theology that suits its own ethical practices.