Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #8

CHRISTIANESE

While my English is OK, my Pig Latin sucks.  Don’t feel too badly for me; I made peace with my inability long ago.  It was sometime after I sat in a tree house in the early 90’s, and realized that the older kids in the tree house were speaking in Pig Latin so I couldn’t understand them.

I won’t lie.  I resented them for doing that, and I was quick enough at deconstructing Pig Latin to realize (belatedly) that I should be offended at what they were saying, but I never allowed them to know, because – after all – they were high schoolers, and simply being around them (even if they were ridiculing me) conferred status on me, right?  It’s not like anyone else knew they were actually talking about me anyway.  Except for my sister.  But she didn’t like my friends enough to tell them, so I figured that was a win, and I was right.

So, as I said, I made my peace with it and decided to accept that my Pig Latin isn’t spry enough to permit an actual conversation.  I should also add that by the late 90’s I was far more interested in learning real languages than made-up ones anyway, so I’ve never been too stressed over my Pig Latin competence.  Most recently in my educational path I worried a lot about Greek, Hebrew, French, and German (no, I can’t read all of those, in case you’re wondering), but never Pig Latin.  For obvious reasons.

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The four languages I mention above (the real ones – not Pig Latin) really are required for most doctorates in theology.  Those programs that don’t specifically require those four languages typically require a fifth – Latin – in addition to them.  Theology, as it happens, is a uniquely language-intensive pursuit.  But for all the languages you need to get a PhD in it, there’s one language spoken in most evangelical churches that never gets mentioned.  For lack of a formal term, we’ll call it Christianese, and just so we’re clear, it’s a language I despise.

If you’ve spent any time at all in an evangelical church, you know what I’m talking about.  Evangelicalism has a lingo composed of its own clichés and buzzwords, and it has enough unique terms to be considered its own dialect, if not language.  If you’ve ever used the word testimony instead of the phrase “life changing epiphany;” if you’ve ever said season when what you meant was “period” or “couple of weeks/months;” if you’ve ever said ask Jesus into your heart or conversion at all; if you use the word grace or the word sovereignty as generic substitutes for any divine action; if you use any kind of euphemism to refer to a solo time of reading scripture and prayer (like “quiet time” or the truly awful “devos” abbreviation for “devotions,” itself short for devotional reading); if any of these things are true, than you, my friend, speak Christianese.  It’s an unfortunate but common malady.

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I understand that many evangelicals seem more or less at peace with Chritianese; I have long suspected that some even strive to speak it.  Nevertheless, I take that to be conclusive evidence of its perfidious nature, a nature that expresses itself in what I view as the two great evils of Christianese.

The first major problem with Christianese is that it smacks of a prideful elitism that stands in direct contrast to the loving humility that should reside at the center of Christianity.  That’s worded strongly, but I think it’s accurate.  At its core, Christianese is an insider language; one can only learn to speak it by spending a considerable amount of time at evangelical churches.  And while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, my experience has taught me that most people first begin speaking the lingo not because it comes naturally to them or because it feels intuitive, but because they want to sound like an insider.  More to the point, because they want to sound spiritual, presumably to garner the respect that sounding spiritual often grants to individuals in evangelical culture.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone who speaks Christianese is a phony trying to advertise their spiritual bona fides.  For many, it becomes such an ingrained habit that they lose all awareness that they always use insider terms to describe their spiritual experiences.  But that’s exactly what they’re doing: using secret code words to describe gifts God gave to everyone.  And that strikes me as fundamentally exclusionary, and hence elitist.

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I was once part of a seminary class in which 48 of the 50 students had their assignments returned by the professor for being so unsatisfactory as to require a complete rewrite.  The assignment?  Write your testimony without using Christianese (though the professor didn’t use the word ‘Christianese’).  Most students were in trouble before they started, because they didn’t see the dirty trick the professor was playing on us.  He didn’t want our ‘testimony;’ that word is Christianese itself.  What he wanted was a plain-language account of how and why each student came to profess faith in Jesus, but since he used the lingo students knew to give the assignment, they couldn’t complete it.  Which means – and this was his point – that 48 seminary students, almost all of whom wanted to be pastors, were incapable of explaining their religious belief to someone who didn’t already share that belief.  Their language betrayed them.

This problem doesn’t just arise in classes, and thus Christianese absolutely presents a barrier to the ability of Christians to communicate with those from outside our faith community.  There are myriad problems with that, most of which are self-evident.  One that might not occur to you immediately, however, is that it’s a step towards the undoing of Jesus’ incarnation.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but apart from dying for our sins one of the main reasons why Jesus became man and taught his disciples for years was so that we could understand God in God’s words.  He became man so that God’s message and actions could be understood with clarity, and when we express our faith in a coded insider language, we make ourselves obfuscators of that which Jesus made clear.  This is not, as they say, a good look.

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My Christianese proficiency dramatically eclipses my Pig Latin fluency, but I usually speak them about the same amount, because I view them with equal contempt. I should also point out that when I remember that day in the tree house, I don’t wonder why I never bothered to perfect my Pig Latin.  I wonder why a bunch of high school kids who could drive were in a tree house at all.  That they were up there speaking Pig Latin so they could exclude a kid of about 11 from their schemes makes them seem even sadder, and the realization that evangelicalism seems to have no qualms about doing more or less the same thing is a part of evangelicalism that makes me rather uncomfortable.

The Oscar Conclave

A group of mostly elderly and mostly white people vote in secret to bestow a life-changing and career-validating honor on a peer.  The media speculates for weeks in advance about who will be selected, with prognosticators writing lengthy columns foretelling the result and bookmakers accepting bets.  When the announcement is made, the chosen one will deny their worthiness even while basking in the celebratory adulation of millions – most of whom, of course, are watching on television.  And the whole world will be watching to see what happens, even if time differentials force many to simply learn the outcome on the news.

Of course, the elderly people casting their votes are a controversial lot.  Not every individual, mind you.  But enough of them have been tainted by the rumors of sexual impropriety, financial misdeeds, and outright corruption that it’s become a staple of comedy routines, even if the media cohort assigned to cover this group of people act as each new revelation is shocking.  Shaking their heads with dismay, they delve as deeply as possible into any scandal – no matter how salacious – in order to “get the truth.”  There are even rumors that such media interest has led to crimes, murders, and other additional corruptions in this elite cadre, but who really knows?  These powerful people don’t talk too much about what they do, and learning whether or not the rumors and news reports are actually true is nearly impossible.  They keep secrets well, and they wield their power to ensure that remains the case.

I’m talking, of course, about the Academy Awards and the bestowing of Oscars.  Unless I’m talking about the Catholic Church’s conclave and selection of a Pope.  I haven’t decided yet.

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The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI during the Oscar season has opened my eyes to how similar the media coverage is between the two events.  We get experts who try to read the tea leaves and tell us who will be chosen, and it’s considered a specialized media beat.  Developments leading up to the big event are reported with similar urgency, and – based on what we saw at the airports with the last conclave – we even get interviews with the key players/candidates as they arrive.  There are some nuanced differences, but on the whole it’s pretty easy to identify the parallels.

The opening of this essay shows the similarities don’t stop with the media coverage, but we still haven’t covered the most interesting one.  There are few people from history that would rate higher with the zeitgeist than John Paul II, but consider the esteem with which the present pope is held.  Would you say that people generally have a higher opinion of him than Tom Hanks?  I wouldn’t.  Nor would I say that people rate Benedict XVI more highly than Denzel Washington or Halle Berry.  Higher than Adrien Brody or Roberto Benigni, sure.  No doubt about it.  But not Denzel or Halle or Tom Hanks.  So while John Paul II rises above all contenders (except for Marlon Brando, maybe), Benedict XVI is right there in the middle of the pack.  All of which goes to show that we hold roughly the same amount of respect in our culture for the winner of an Academy Award as we do for the “winner” of the papacy.

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Winners.  They get the respect, and they get the acclaim.  The Academy Awards aren’t really a contest, but they’re covered like it, because that yields a narrative about winners and losers rather than a narrative about arbitrary professional accolades.  It’s a better story with winners and losers, right?

The same goes for the papal conclave.  The idea that the assembled cardinals will actually be guided by the Holy Spirit is a tough sell in a media sound-bite; instead, it’s told as a story with a winner.  It’ll have losers too, by the way.  The same day they choose the new pontiff, every American media organization will run a story outlining how the choice is a setback (i.e., loss) for American Catholics seeking reforms (unless the story is that it’s a setback for Benedict XVI and the theological conservatives, but that’s nigh unfathomable).

I’m not saying this is good or bad; the media have to approach every story from some angle in order to tell it, and this is at least an interesting perspective.  It does, however, account for those similarities between the Oscars and a conclave that don’t have to do with corrupt old people acting in secret.  It also accounts for the similarities between these events and others that I haven’t bothered to list, such as the political squabble over the sequester (Instead of trying to forestall it, both parties are currently blaming each other, with the media trying to assess who will win and who will lose when it happens.  Once again, it’s a story involving a lot of possibly corrupt white men acting behind closed doors.), or even the future of the Los Angeles Lakers.  It’s just how stories are reported these days.

You may not like the fact that a Best Actor can be as well regarded as the Vicar of Christ, but which winner makes for an easier story to tell?  The photogenic American, that’s who.  And the respect of the masses is apportioned accordingly.

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It seems to me – and this is a development that I believe has unfolded in my lifetime – that our entire culture is now thoroughly organized around the concepts of winners and losers.  Any event or action can be assessed in terms of winners and losers, and that’s often what we do.  Get to that parking space first?  Winner!  Feel dominated by a colleague’s comments at a meeting?  Loser!  Get the last blueberry scone at Starbucks?  Winner!

It’s as if our culture is being controlled by a gambling addict who may or may not be on his seventh bourbon of the morning.  Choosing winners and losers everywhere, he’s having so much fun that the rest of us have gotten sucked into the game.  It can certainly make any activity or story more fun – seriously, if it didn’t choose a winnerpope, could you imagine anything more boring than the gathering of aged virgins constituting the conclave? – but does everything have to be a contest?  And who decided to put the drunken gambler in charge of how we view our lives?  We wouldn’t let such a reprobate drive our car anywhere, so we probably shouldn’t let him drive our culture.

I don’t want to make too much of this; I just want to stimulate your thinking.  I personally enjoy the Academy Awards as a contest, and I’ll definitely be (hatefully) watching to see if my least favorite people lose on Sunday night.  But it’s the tendency for the winner/loser mentality to corrupt other things, like my Sunday mornings, that has me concerned.  I’d rather take the keys to a few more parts of my life away from the sauced bookie in charge of our culture.  What about you?

Pondering an Atheist Church

A week or two ago, I read an article about an atheist church recently founded in London.  Called Sunday Assembly, they assemble on Sundays for community and enrichment.  Expecting to draw about 20 to their first weekly meeting, the stand-up comic who serves as the emcee (which is to say he’s the atheist pastor, although he prefers to be thought of more like a host than a minister) was blown away when 200 arrived.  Later weeks have seen so many attendees that Sunday Assembly now broadcasts a digital feed to a nearby pub for overflow capacity – which in a sense makes them the first multi-site atheist church (to borrow a little evangelical terminology).

The first article I read about Sunday Assembly organized its report around the question of whether or not atheism is becoming a religion.  It’s a fair question, but the more I read about Sunday Assembly, the more I realized it’s the wrong question.  After reading about Sunday Assembly, the inescapable question that preoccupies my thoughts is this: how did Christianity sink so low that this atheist social meeting seems like a religion?

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Here’s what Sunday Assembly is: a group of people who want community, want to be inspired, and want their lives enriched and who do not believe in God.  In adopting the forms of a church service – they meet in a church, they have a band that leads them in singing familiar songs, they have time for silent reflection, and they have a speaker come to challenge their thinking – they are highlighting a dirty secret about Christian churches today: many of our services wouldn’t change too much if we decided to elide God from the proceedings.  It’s no wonder these atheist decided to see if they could keep the fun parts of church without God; it was only a matter of time.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t one of those posts where the author blasts the entire Church as being completely backwards and wrongheaded.  We should start by pointing out that what the Sunday Assemblers want is what they see us having (sans creator), and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  If we weren’t getting something right as Christians, atheists wouldn’t be recreating our services in our venues on our day.  That they want what we have is to the Church’s credit.

The criticism for the Church – and this has to do primarily with evangelicals and other Protestants – is that what we do have is often incomplete.  Community in our churches shouldn’t be mistakable for community in social clubs; we’re supposed to be actual family, not just friends, and that should feel deeper than and different from the community one finds in any other gathering.  Our sermons shouldn’t seem replaceable by a pep talk or informative lecture intended to stimulate wonder; they’re supposed to unpack wisdom unlike any that comes from men, and they’re supposed to be delivered by family to family.  The difference between Sunday Assembly and your local church should be as stark as the difference between a book club and a family reunion (of a family who actually like each other).  That it’s almost certainly not has less to do with what the Church is doing wrong than it does with what the Church often forgets to do at all.

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Christians are generally pretty clear on the fact that we’re supposed to be a big family, even if that doesn’t at all translate into a familial feeling at many churches.  Even so, I think there’s a related point that we often miss.  In the ancient world – which is to say the world in which the biblical passages calling us all family, like 1 Corinthians 12, were written – big families functioned differently than they do in today’s western world.  Back then, a big family formed a clan or even a tribe.  It became its own people group, just as the big family of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph did over time.  Permit me to suggest that we Christians should function as a people group ourselves.

Political scientists differentiate between states (political entities defined by geographic boundaries and governmental authority) and nations (a people group).  The United States is a state, the Navajo people are a nation.  Turkey is a state, the Kurds are a nation.  Christians, according to this terminology, are supposed to be a nation.

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Some will be tempted to see Sunday Assembly as proof that the Church has failed to put God at the center of what it does.  That this secular church could attempt to provide its parishioners with the full church experience – absent God, of course – isn’t simply a condemnation of the Church’s failure to put Jesus (or “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” to parrot the nebulous cliché ascendant at the seminary in which I studied) at the center of what it’s doing.  To the contrary, I think it’s symptomatic of the fact that the church has failed to put Jesus at the center of something it isn’t doing in the first place; the church has failed to put Jesus at the center of our existence as a nation.  And it’s a failing that has more to do with forgetting to be a nation than it does with our treatment of Jesus.

Yeah, that sounds crazy.  I’m trying too hard, right?  The thing is, evangelicalism in particular – but also Protestantism at large – is basically just a theologically reductionist movement.  We’ve eliminated smells and bells, icons and praying to the saints, and a host of other theological doctrines that we don’t see in scripture.  Just as secularism is defined by how it differentiates itself from the cultural reach of Christianity, Protestantism (and by extension, evangelicalism) is defined by what parts of the broader Christian Church it’s managed to jettison.

Unfortunately, some of what most churches have jettisoned are precisely those patterns of behavior that differentiate Christians as a nation rather than simply a group of hobbyists.  One (but not the only) such rejected tradition is that of the church calendar.

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There is nothing that can orient a person’s behavior and existence at a more fundamental level than that which orients said person’s time.  To arrange one’s life around a particular schedule or calendar of events is to submit one’s life to that schedule or calendar, and once upon a time, all Christians did this.  Now – even in the denominations that keep the church calendar – it’s little more than a Sunday curiosity, and our churches are the poorer for it, not to mention easier to imitate.

Some will object that the church calendar has naught to do with Jesus or the mandates of scripture, and this is why Protestants have largely abandoned it.  Such objections are mistaken.  For one thing, God organized almost all of our world such that there are four seasons in nature (those of you reading from Canada will just have to ask someone what I mean).  For another thing, God institutes a variety of festivals and celebrations for the Jewish people in the Old Testament (even going so far as to specify which month is to start their year in Exodus 12:2); these observances served to organize the Jewish rhythm of life.  Moreover, if we recognize that Jesus never explicitly required Christians to do likewise, we should remember that Jesus’ disciples were uniformly Jewish, and already lived in accordance with the Old Testament rhythm.  If Jesus never commanded that Christians adopt a particular calendar, neither did he abolish the one they already had.  God ordered his people’s time, and it’s a practice that the early church modified and adopted as far back as we’re able to trace it.

For all the ways in which Sunday Assembly imitates church, it seems to me that inventing their own calendar and seasons of the year would probably be a bridge too far for most atheists, if for no other reason than that the creation of an atheist calendar would necessarily be either arbitrary (and thus illogical) or pagan (and thus not truly atheist).  They can copy what we do at church but they wouldn’t be able to copy our nation’s rhythm of life.  At least, they wouldn’t be able to do so if we actually had one.

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Following the church calendar is not a silver bullet to undermine and eliminate atheism, and I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the only way in which we should change evangelical churches to restore our identity as a Jesus-centered nation.  But I do think that it functions as an inimitable aspect of what it means to be Christian, and it’s a useful spiritual discipline to boot.  So during this Lenten season, spare a thought for the fact that there’s more to the church calendar than simply giving up chocolate for a few weeks a year.  There’s a rhythm of life that could differentiate us as a people from atheist social clubs, if only we’d let it.  Otherwise, some might think the only difference between us is that we sing songs by Charles Wesley and Sunday Assembly sings songs by Oasis.  And you can bet which of those rhythms the world will find more fun.

Praying for the Pope

Over the course of this week, I’ve asked a small and completely unscientific sampling of evangelicals whether or not the Pope was the most important Christian alive, and every single one of them hemmed and hawed.  After said hemming and hawing, every one of them tried to construct an argument that each Christian is the most important one, usually starting it by arguing in favor of “you and me.”  In the end, the argument that each Christian is as important as the next tends to sputter and die under the weight of its own unreality, and not merely because of the looks I give the speaker (I asked at least one person via telephone, and the result was the same even though he couldn’t see my incredulity when he tried to forward the idea that we were as important as the Pope).  The problem is that trying to argue that I (or probably you, but we’ll stick with me) am even remotely as important as the Pope is laughable, and trying to make the argument on my behalf gets awkward pretty fast if you actually know much about me.

The Pope is the most important Christian in the world.  As I’ve learned, many evangelicals will try to wiggle their way out of that statement, but I’m standing by it, and adding that this is why his resignation and forthcoming replacement should be a subject of intense prayer, even by those of us who reject his authoritarian claims.

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Last weekend – before Benedict XVI gave the most shocking two-weeks notice in global history – he was a topic of conversation briefly at a gathering I attended of 10 evangelical seminary graduates and students, and the table generally agreed that Benedict had been a bit disappointing because of his apparent disinterest in Catholic-Protestant rapprochement.  Ignoring the recurring sight of evangelical narcissism when the Pope comes up (I’m more important that the Pope!  No?  Well… he’s doing a bad job because he’s not wooing me hard enough!), I found this conversation telling.

For one thing, consider the complaint of the evangelicals at the table.  Why should we care whether or not the Pope is seeking reconciliation within the church?  We care because – in spite of the evangelical tendency to ignore history and other traditions – the Bishop of Rome is supposed to be the head of the whole church.  For 1500 years, nobody really disputed that.  Orthodox and Copts may have disputed how that headship should play out (for the record: they still do), but until we came along, the church acknowledged the importance of the Bishop of Rome.  As good Protestants, the historically educated seminarians at the table still want their protests to be heard, the church to reform, and the world’s Christians to be united.  And since nobody has more power to drive that process than the Bishop of Rome himself, the evangelicals at the dinner party feel sad that the Pope hasn’t led in that way.  In a sense, the complaint says more about Protestant longing to re-unite the church than it does about Benedict XVI.

Another point of interest about that conversation, meanwhile, is the fact that I can’t imagine a group of similarly educated Catholics knowing enough about any one evangelical by virtue of his office to have an informed conversation, let alone reach a consensus about his job performance.  You might argue for Billy Graham, I suppose, but what exactly is his office?  Evangelicals have celebrities, but we don’t have official leaders in the same way, and we don’t have anyone that 1.2 billion people – one-sixth of the planet, for crying out loud – will follow.  The Pope’s profile and the extent of his influence are unmatched by any other religious figure, to the extent that 10 Illinois seminarians have an informed opinion about a German theologian who mostly publishes in Latin.  This is unparalleled.

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Even if, dear reader, you’re one of those evangelicals, the ones who would quibble over whether or not the Pope should rightly be considered a Christian at all, you must admit that we generally allow people to declare themselves Christians or not, and the Pope’s status is not in question in that respect.  Moreover, since the entire world keeps tabs on where he goes, what he does, and what he says – and since this is all attributed by both the Pope and observers to his ministerial obligation to represent Jesus – his every action is scrutinized as a symbol of what we believe.  So even if you retain a 19th Century bias against Catholics, you must admit that the Pope matters.  He represents both Jesus and you to the world, whether you like it or not.

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The evangelical tendency to treat us all as though we’re equal is touchingly democratic and perfectly valid if we’re measuring the value of a person.  But when it comes to impact, importance, and responsibility, we are by no means all equal.  You can only control the actions of one Christian – yourself, obviously – and that’s why God will only judge you for what that one Christian does.  The Pope’s control extends to billions, and I have to think the actions of those billions will factor into his judgment.  His life is nothing like your life.  The Pope is more important than you are, and he’s more important than I am.  He’s simply more important than any other Christian.

So with Benedict XVI cleaning out his desk, don’t give in to the temptation to merely watch events in Rome unfold.  Pray.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide the Cardinals in choosing a new Pope.  Pray for the Cardinals to listen.  Pray for the ability of whoever is chosen to shoulder the heavy burden of the Papacy.  Pray for the new Pope to work to unify all Christians.  Pray for the man regarded as Christ’s vicar on earth.  He’s an important guy, and he could use it.

Sundance Hates Ugandans

Note: Permit me to apologize for the infrequency of posts lately.  Actual paid work has interfered with my writing schedule somewhat, but I also struggled to write this particular post for over a week.  It’s not perfect, but it’s finally worth making public.  Thank you to those of you who reached out to ask if I’m OK; in fact I’m fine, and you may look for a resumption of my normal posting schedule this coming week.

In mid-January at the Sundance film festival, a documentary called God Loves Uganda screened and elicited the most predictable critical responses imaginable.  Really.  Here: I’ll tell you what it’s about in a general sense, and I’ll bet you can guess how it was written up everywhere.  It’s about evangelical missionaries to Uganda (from IHOP in Kansas City, for those of you familiar with them) and their impact on gay rights in that country.

See?  Do you really need me to tell you that the film argues the missionaries are spreading hatred, homophobia, and the American culture war to Uganda?  Will it surprise you to hear that the reviewers all suggest that the documentary is not entirely even-handed, but generally conclude that the anti-evangelical bias is immaterial given the stakes?  Of course not, because evangelicals are so loathsome that right-thinking people always assume the worst about us anyway.

Let me be clear about this: I have not seen God Loves Uganda.  I’m unable to evaluate the merits of the film’s claims and perspectives, because I have not heard them.  Even so, the response to God Loves Uganda warrants scrutiny, because even if the worst suggestions are true – even if normal American evangelicals are going to Uganda to brainwash Ugandan children into killing gay people – there is a truth about the film and its reviews that infuriates me: nobody is treating Ugandans as fully human.

In the rush to stick up for gay people and protect them from the dangers of evangelicals and evangelicalism, both the filmmaker and the reviewers reveal their utter dearth of respect for the people of Uganda.  Of course, that appears to be one of the accusations implied (or stated; again, I haven’t yet seen it) against the missionaries featured in the film, and – as I’ll explain – I imagine it’s an accusation with some merit.  But that’s the infuriating part about this whole thing.  All the Americans involved – regardless of what side of the camera or screen they’re on – appear to assume that Ugandans exist in some ethical and cultural void until white people arrive to tell them what to believe.  I can’t decide if this view consists of more racism or more imperialism, but rest assured it is composed of both.

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Take it from someone who’s lived in Africa, someone who has been given a name by two different tribes: every corner of that continent is steeped in culture and traditions older than the United States and older than evangelicalism.  That doesn’t mean that those traditions are written down; they frequently are not.  It also doesn’t mean that no other culture or perspective can enter, engage, or enrich the existing cultures of Africa.  They can and have, for generations immemorial.  It does mean that there’s nobody in Africa waiting for a white person to come tell him what to believe.  Neither African cultures nor African individuals are blank slates.

If the same missionaries that are in the film were headed to Manhattan’s Upper West side instead of Uganda, it would be a nonstory.  Some might think it a little odd, but since we assume that the people of Manhattan can tell someone with whom they disagree to be silent (with delightfully colorful language, I imagine), we wouldn’t fear for their culture.  So what’s different about Uganda?  Why do we assume that they’re no more capable of adhering to their existing cultural views of morality, sexuality, religion, or anything else that these IHOP missionaries may discuss?

Is it that they’re poor?  Is it their skin color?  Is it because they don’t read the New York Times?  Any answer you choose is patently offensive, and that’s the problem.  In this lack of respect for the integrity of Ugandan culture and intellect, we see that both the Christians and the film community are starting with the underlying assumption that Ugandans are lesser beings.

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Regarding the smug cultural superiority evident in the reviews of God Loves Uganda that emerged from Sundance, a few brief points are in order.  In the first place, the filmic zeitgeist appears to be so afraid of evangelicals as to give credence to reports we have magical powers to intellectually seduce whole countries, apparently for the purposes of committing mass acts of evil that are actually contrary to Christian doctrine.  Tell me this isn’t funny.  Not the part where they think so little of Ugandans, but the part where they think American evangelicals – people they find so transparently malevolent and preposterously stupid – can achieve propaganda and foreign policy victories that would make Hugo Chavez or the Chinese government blush.

Secondly, of course, we should remember these reviews are dispatches escaped from the debauched excess of Sundance.  I say this not to impugn the professionalism of the reviews’ authors, but rather to point out that smugness is as contagious as hope, and the annual “our man at Sundance” columns various outlets print/post each year illustrate the orgy of smug narcissism composing Sundance.  It’s axiomatic that people who make films love to be important; what can we say about the dilettantes behind the pretentious films of Sundance?  If the reviews read any other way – if they didn’t look down on evangelicals and Ugandans alike – they wouldn’t be from Sundance.

Having said that, there can be no excuse for the assumption that Ugandans are merely cultural receivers susceptible to the machinations of white people.  It sounds as though the filmmaker has found some Ugandans to second that low view of Ugandans, but this is meaningless.  Every culture has people within it who loathe it; that this serves the superiority of the Sundance crowd should not be taken as evidence that Africans are supine to any and every American idea.  This entire line of thought requires Ugandans to be even more pitiable than evangelicals, and therein lies the fundamental racism.  The film community views even the most reviled American as superior to an African.  It’s so offensive that words fail me.

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The missionaries, sadly, appear guilty of the same crime.

I’m not opposed to missions; far from it in fact.  I believe in Jesus, and I believe that he offers a hope for all people, and that requires some people to go and proclaim their hope – even when people aren’t particularly interested in the message.  That’s what Christians are supposed to do, and it’s what has happened in various places for over 2000 years now.  There’s also nothing intrinsically wrong with a religious group desiring to reach children; Jesus was massively popular with kids, so there’s arguably an unassailable precedent here.  The ghastly part about all of this is the fact that these missionaries seem so much more excited (obviously, I’m trusting the reviewers here) to reach young Ugandans than old Ugandans with the hope of Jesus.

Think about that.  Why would these Midwesterners be targeting young Ugandans instead of just trying to bring Jesus to all people?  The answer is found in their view of Ugandan culture.  These missionaries must hold in tension the views that Ugandan culture is so corrupting and vile as to make it almost impossible to reach Ugandan adults with a  message of hope, while at the same time believing Ugandan culture to be so anemic as to have no corruptive power on the young.  They see Ugandan culture as a problem and a pity simultaneously.  And in this logically incoherent – yet still breathtakingly condescending – view of Ugandan culture, we see the problem.  It’s a strategy that manages to both insult and underestimate Ugandans, and that’s why it’s both horrifying and misleading.  It’ll never work, because Ugandans understand what it means to be Ugandan on a level the missionaries don’t even grasp exists; that the missionaries have confused American culture with faith in Jesus is revealed by their very strategies.  Once again, I’m speechless.

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Here’s the final problem with both the missionaries and the film community so eager to denounce them: ideologies do not export in the way both seem to assume.  Hope is contagious, and it’s patently obvious that religious faiths spread across geography and cultures.  But culture always changes things.  Consider the Catholic Church, ostensibly under the unifying leadership of one person.  If I told you a person was a devout Catholic, you’d have an image in your mind, but that image would change as soon as I gave you a country of origin.  A devout Latin American Catholic probably lights a lot more candles and trusts the priest more implicitly than a devout American Catholic, who probably enjoys discussing things with her priest in a way that the Latin American would find impudent.  The American Catholic meanwhile, probably wears fashionable clothes to mass that would horrify the devout South African Catholic, who wears a uniform to church.  The charismatic tendencies of that South African Catholic meanwhile, would seem bizarre to a German Catholic, steeped in the theological riches of educated European culture.  All Catholics, but all different.

The same is true with respect to Islam, democracy, communism, and every major ideology.  Each country and culture adapts new ideologies to fit, and so we can say that ideologies do not export wholesale.  So when the missionaries target children because they haven’t yet been corrupted by Ugandan culture, they’re fools.  Ugandans are Ugandans, even when messianic white people come to teach them how to be American Christians.  And when hyperventilating filmmakers and film reviewers worry that Americans are exporting hatred and our culture wars to Uganda, they’re idiots too.  Ugandans are not so malleable as to simply accept everything they’re told.  We wouldn’t assume that about people on the Upper West Side, and we shouldn’t assume it about Africans.  If they listen to what the missionaries have to say, it’s still up to the Ugandan hearers to decide what they’ll do with what they hear.  And if the film community doesn’t like what Ugandans end up believing, maybe the problem isn’t homophobia.  Maybe it’s Ugandaphobia or Africaphobia.  In either case, it appears to be endemic to Americans, regardless of creed.