Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Problem of Perception? Maybe

It seems that this book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... And Why It Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons has made quite a stir. They interviewed non-Christian "outsiders." The 40% of 16 to 29-year-olds who are atheist, agnostic, adherents of non-Christian religions and the "unchurched." Their findings were unsurprising to everyone but themselves.
Mr. Kinnaman discusses the top six criticisms leveled against the church by "outsiders" (non-Christians) age 16 to 29. These six criticisms are that Christians are:
  1. antihomosexual (91 % said "a lot" or "some) Even 80% of young churchgoers agree
  2. judgmental (87%)
  3. too involved with politics (85%)
  4. sheltered/ out of touch with reality (72%)
  5. too focused on gaining converts, and
  6. hypocritical
(Those last two items are summaries Kinnaman derives from statistics and statements elsewhere; the actual fifth and sixth ranked criticisms respondents could choose from were Old-Fashioned (78%) and Insensitive to Others (70%), with Boring (68%) and Not Accepting of Other Faiths (64%) bringing up the rear, though still with a huge plurality.)
As you may imagine, item number 1 is of most interest to me. (I do wonder why item 3 hasn't cost anyone their tax-exempt status.) The general intolerance for non-Christian religions is another issue I have. See the entire struggle to get the Veterans' Administration to recognize Wicca for an example. (I'm sure that there are those who would love to exclude Jewish symbols from National Cemeteries, but it is easier to discriminate against small religions.) That is only 1 example. How many "homeowners' associations" contain bylaws forbidding regular religious services at homes? And how many of you realize that those bylaws exist to keep the Orthodox Jews out of the neighborhood? (They have to be able to walk to services on Friday and Saturday.) If it was about controlling traffic, the bylaws would be stated in that fashion, and since the Orthodox have to walk, it wouldn't have the desired effect anyway.

As to the first item in Kinnaman's list, there are two problems with his approach to offering compassion in in place of contempt for gays, and lesbians.
But the impossibility of the enterprise is established when the chapter self-destructs in its first two sentences:

"So David, do you still think I'm going to hell because I'm gay?"
My friend's question caught me off guard.

We know where this is going: 1. description of how much David likes his friend. 2. description of the traditional view of homosexuality (the Bible's agin' it!). 3. call for more compassion, with an example of how he, in this instance, responded with compassion rather than judgment to his friend. 4. ambivalent ending, pointing towards hope for the future...perhaps?

The problem--or at least one problem--is that the actual dynamic of God vs. homosexual still stands. In essence, the proper evangelical Christian answer to his friend's question is "No, my friend. Your sin is no different from my own tendency to be prideful and gluttonous. You're actually going to hell for so much more than just your mere homosexuality!" (Follow-up statement, "And believe me, I'm just as unworthy as you are, except that fortunately I'm going to heaven.") If that's what you're calling compassion, I invite you to reread the dictionary before you wonder why people won't come to your parties.
The other problem is why are Christians so done up over something that is basically an Old Testament (no not completely) issue, and not done up in the same way over other Old Testament issues, like keeping Kosher?
But the Jesus of the gospels said nothing to condemn homosexuality. So the Christians eventually have to stop talking about Jesus and talk about "the Bible" (including the Old Testament), or even a rather amorphous (and manipulable) "biblical perspective." Bait and switch.
In the end, Kinnaman is trying to improve the image of Christianity in the world - especially with the younger generation he dealt with in the survey. This is something I don't really have any feelings about. I do have feelings about any religion, Christian, Islam, whatever, that tries to use their personal belief system to dictate how I should live my life. Or why do you think it took years to get a Wiccan grave marker on Wiccan grave in a Veterans Cemetery? Do you think it was a Muslim conspiracy?

And no the 2 big Levantine religions (Christianity and Islam) are not the same. One is hideously dangerous when its fundamentalists are unleashed, the other is merely annoying to slightly dangerous. (I haven't run into elements of the 3rd Levantine religion - Judaism - trying to control my life. They probably exist, but I haven't encountered them.)

Kinnaman and Company wonder why the world sees them as homophobic, intolerant of other religions, out-of-touch and all the rest. As at least part of the answer, I give you the example of Fred Phelps, who in 1999 Mother Jones called The Man Who Loves to Hate. Phelps may be particularly annoying, but he isn't alone.

Kinnaman's study was interesting to me for two reasons. One, he bothered to look outside his group at all. Very few organizations or movements do that. "Preaching to the Choir" isn't just a problem the religious have. Two, the basic result that 40% of people 16 to 29 are "outsiders" surprised me. (If you actually look at some of the core data Kinnaman has, it isn't as amazing as all that. Though the figures on music downloading were interesting.) But the number of people who have been pushed away and the general negative perception is amazing, as is Kinnaman's attempt to face the numbers head on, and not explain them away, as many people will certainly do.

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