Thursday, March 20, 2014

God is dead... but can we talk about him anyway?

In the mail today
Unless you completely tune out mass media this year (which is certainly one viable option), be prepared. There's a flood (see what I did there?) of religious movies on the market this year.

God's Not Dead (Duck Dynasty)

Noah (Russell Crowe and director of Black Swan)

Son of God (excerpted from History Channel The Bible)

Heaven is for Real (based on the best-selling book)

Exodus (Ridley Scott, can it challenge Charleton Heston?)

Mary, Mother of the Christ (prequel to Passion of the Christ, executive producer Joel Osteen)

Culture critics, loquacious Christians, religious bores, and strident atheists of all stripes are going to be ready with their diatribes and screeds. In the meantime, the many in the middle will, I presume, be seeking thoughtful resources, lenses through which to view the films without necessarily succumbing to the polarizing trajectories into which the culture wars will seek to co-opt us.

Some of this commentary will be tiresome. Some of it will be awesome. It will take some clear-eyed and generous theological and critical tools to wade successfully through the muck and mire to dig up the gold. But for all that it may be worth the effort.

Take God's Not Dead, the evangelical right's mass-media Blitzkrieg against so-called intellectual atheism. The movie portrays "the limits one young man will go to in order to defend his belief in God."

The movie isn't just a movie. It's the centerpiece of a crusade. The producers of this movie have designed a slew of free resources for Christians hoping to use the movie as an opportunity for evangelical conversation. There are study guides, Twitter hashtags, a preaching kit, a prayer guide to pray for the movie on its opening weekend, and of course...

The GodTest, an incredibly well-designed evangelism resources campus ministry and evangelists can use to engage communities in conversation leading to telling the story of the gospel.

Here's where things get tricky. I could easily get co-opted into the culture war. I myself have some concerns about the rise of atheism or agnosticism in our culture. I seek excellent ways to engage my neighbors and friends in gospel conversations. So, although I have some concerns about the "way" the evangelicals leading this campaign strategize, I acknowledge that I may actually share similar goals as theirs, perhaps only with a tad more hermeneutics of suspicion in place about my own motivations for evangelism.

The movie (and really the whole campaign) is energized by an anxiety common among a wide array of North American Christians. They believe Christianity is under attack, that professors at universities are particularly horrible and manipulative, and that the true mark of the heroic Christian martyr in contemporary culture isn't, for example, to die while serving a leper colony or while standing in solidarity with the poor (although these are goods also) but rather standing up for the argument for the existence of God.

In other words, the true witness (martyr) in this construct is the one who confesses a specific belief system, and articulates it well over against their cultured despisers.

The community that produced this movie perceives any questioning of their faith not as honest questioning, but as attack. Their response is a crusade: A counter-attack under the guise of authentic conversation. It's a rhetorically powerful strategy lacking in critical self-awareness.

A Christian like myself struggles with this approach, on any number of levels. Christianity is still in a position of power and dominance in our culture. It is not the weak and suffering minority. Any majority culture that can convince itself it is actually the oppressed minority is, in some ways, quite dangerous. Fear combined with power is potentially explosive.

So, here are a few tools for the toolkit. If you do go see God's Not Dead in the next couple of weeks, consider them in light of the movie. I believe great cultural artifacts, even ones with which I disagree, can still be fertile locations for Christian imagining and conversation.

1. The argument for the existence of God isn't all it's cracked up to be

It appears that God's Not Dead is focused less on the death of God (in Christ) and more on arguments for God's existence of non-existence. The college student, near the end of the movie, does bring the debate back around in a relational direction, asking the professor why he hates God so much. But generally speaking, the debate focuses around proofs for the existence of God. This is the debate that energizes much of apologetics, and takes the form of rational argumentation, proofs from philosophy and other disciplines. Because it is philosophical, it shifts towards questions of existence quite naturally. "Being" is a hot topic in philosophy of any era.

So I asked my friend Gregory Walter, professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, to share a comment on how he thinks about this issue with the students in his Death of God course. He writes:
"Does God exist?  To channel Rev. Lovejoy.  Short answer:  yes with a but.  Long answer:  no with an if.  Anselm pushed God as that than which no greater can be conceived.  This led him and the many others to caution us with the word 'existence,' a word that needs clarification and requires teeth.  Does God exist?  Not in any ordinary sense of the word.  In fact, for the sake of God many hold that God does not exist but say God exists and doesn't exist to avoid being driven to silence.  In today's world where the word 'God' is spoken and used in so many ways, a bit of silence on the word might suffice.  In other words, a little death of God for the sake of God."
It is my belief that many atheists don't believe in God, but they disbelieve in a non-existent God, and could actually consider belief in a God beyond or above God. Similarly, many Christians defend the existence of God that doesn't exist, because they have not been willing to consider God as "beyond" being. "God doesn't exist in any ordinary sense of the word" because God is "that than which no greater can be conceived."

That's a worthwhile direction for conversation between atheists and Christians, because it comprehends whatever "God" is more appropriately and puts God, in some senses, beyond both atheist rejection and Christian manipulation.

2. Christians are called to accompany others in conversation, not convert them

Can I talk to you?

The God Test material linked above begins with conversation, inviting people to take a test that opens a conversation about God. So far so good. But then it instrumentalizes the conversation, and makes the conversation about something other than the conversation itself. The conversation is simply a means to an end, which is the conversion of the unbeliever through a gifted telling of the gospel story, and their acceptance of the gospel by praying the Jesus Prayer.

Now, I get why people do this. On any number of topics, I probably do it myself. Who doesn't make arguments with the goal of changing the mind of those with whom we are speaking? However, whenever the conversation itself is undervalued in this way, as if opening up the relationship itself weren't a worthy goal in and of itself, there are potential problems.

One of my favorite theologians on this topic is Andrew Root. He argues that relational ministry isn't a strategy. If we believe we are to enter into a relationship in order to accomplish something for or "to" the other person, we miss out on the way in which the relationship itself changes both of us in the encounter. We can be "converted" also. The relationship is an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, because the end is already present in the means, Jesus Christ is present in the relationship itself. “To have our person embraced is to find our person bound to others and therefore transformed in and through the relationship” (21). This is why I cherish our the idea of mission and ministry as accompanimentAccompaniment is defined as walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. 

3. Agenda-driven art is really difficult to do well

Think about Socialist Realism, contemporary advertising, or any other type of art with an ideological bent. Great artists have produced astounding art even in the midst of ideologically driven movements. And the labeling of certain types of art as ideological is itself a criticism defined to a certain degree by the eye of the beholder. One person's propaganda is another person's work of genius. Nevertheless, in a campaign like God's Not Dead, the engine is fairly obvious. The movie was created to center a movement, and the movement has some quite obvious agendas.

It is likely that most art has some kind of agenda But often truly beautiful art finds ways to more subtly incorporate the agenda into the artistry. Some of the best Christian music isn't overtly Christian. Some of the greatest protest songs weren't originally written to articulate protest. It is remarkably difficult, once an agenda is in place, to get back to a second naiveté and create as if the agenda weren't there. But it is possible. See, for example, the gorgeous artful expression of the video game Myst. The various religious movies coming out this year vary in the extent of their attempt to be artistic verses agenda-driven.

One can hope that at the end of the year, above all else people of all faiths will have deepened their commitment to the idea that faith, if it is going to be anything at all, will maintain as much commitment to the maintenance of beauty as it does to the maintenance of truth.

And returning to those mailings at the top of this blog post, notice how much attention I've given to God's Not Dead in this blog post. What if my imagination were more captivated by the other mailer, an update on the ELCA Malaria Campaign. What if we invested as many resources in ending malaria in our lifetime as we currently invest in the movies? That would shift us away a bit from our over-emphasis on the true and the beautiful, and return us to a properly balanced commitment to the good.

4. And let's not forget, God did die, on a cross, in Christ

O terrible disaster!

God himself is dead, he has died on the cross, and through that has gained us the kingdom of heaven. 
Johannes Rist,
O Traurigkeit (1628)

For those interested in the Death of God syllabus, here's the reading list for the class:

John D. Caputo, On Religion.  ISBN 9780415233330
Fyodor Dosteovsky, Brothers Karamazov.  ISBN 9780374528379
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.  ISBN 9780679724650
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss.  ISBN 9780374216788
Sean Murphy, Punk Rock Jesus.  ISBN 9781401237684
Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs.  ISBN 9780199214198
Benedict XVI, Saved in Hope.  ISBN 9780819871107

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Selections from Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonheoffer Works, vol. 8. (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2010) [See table below.]

José Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization:  A Global Comparative Perspective,” The Hedgehog Review 8(2006), 7-22.

Jürgen Habermas, “An Awareness of What is Missing” from An Awareness of What is Missing:  Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (New York:  Polity, 2010), 15-23.

Ingolf Dalferth, “Post-Secular Society:  Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular,” Journal of Religion 78 (2010) 317–345.
John Milbank, “’Postmodern Critical Augustinianism’ A Short Summa in Forty Two Responses to Unasked Questions,” Modern Theology 7 (1991), 225-237.

Films:  Christopher Nolan, Memento (2000); The Prestige (2006); The Dark Knight (2008); Inception (2010).


  1. Clint--These are helpful reflections. I may draw on them (with credit, of course!) in my Existentialism course in the fall, if that's alright with you.

    Out of curiosity--what's the context for the Death of God syllabus? The reading list looks great.

  2. Gregory Walter, professor at St. Olaf College. It's one of the 200 level electives in their religion department. And yes, of course you can draw on these reflections in your course. Of course!

  3. “Superstition, idolatry, and hypocrisy have ample wages, but truth goes a-begging.” ~ Martin Luther

    That's why there is no huge movement drawing lots of money and paid talent that's centered on grace.