It started the day we went to get our wedding cake. Needing to have some fun amidst all the wedding preparations, we took a break en route to pick up the aforementioned in the form of a little film called The Matrix. Like many others we were dazzled and awestruck. Not only was it a kick-ass action movie with some very cool sunglasses and coats; not only were the effects unlike anything we’d seen to that point and were used in furtherance of the story and action; not only did everybody who saw it want to be Laurence Fishburne; but it seemed to reference the entire Bible and make out that the lead character, Neo (Keanu Reeves) was a Jesus figure. It felt to many that this was the film Christians – especially youth workers – had been waiting for.
Soon you couldn’t move for sermon illustrations, Christian books, youth rallies and much more with allusions to the film. Marvellous. Problem was, it didn’t quite work. For a start, there’s the often-overlooked fact that the previous film from the makers of The Matrix was a violent thriller about a lesbian couple. It was called Bound. Then a few of us pushed a little deeper. It turned out that if you listened to what the film makers had to say and unpicked the plot and all the different religious allusions to different religions, what you ended up with was a film the theology of which was a proto-Bhuddist, New Agey mush. It didn’t make the film any less cool, but made it slightly harder to use in talks with total integrity. Not that these inconvenient truths stopped many evangelicals. Keanu Reeves was Neo and Neo was clearly Jesus.
What happened with The Matrix is just one example of an oft-recurring pattern in evangelical circles. A hint of faith that resembles ours and we trumpet it from the social media rooftops. It could be film or music or anything really. We’re so desperate to be culturally relevant that we’ll take anything thrown our way. If our reading of Scripture were as lazy as our reading of films …
There’s a similar dynamic at play when we discover that someone famous shares our faith. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be. I remember cases of famous people finding Christ, testimonies trumpeted and within a year faith had been lost and the person dropped. Or take the other extreme – once a person can be verified as a Christian (or not), then their work can be accepted (or not). Back in the day, U2 were known to be Christians. So we all listened to them. Then, with Achtung Baby they appeared to have veered, so we didn’t. I knew one president of a Christian body who was so angry that he trashed his U2 collection and took Achtung Baby back to the shop (this was in the day when you bought music in a shop). I and some others kept listening, actually, because we realised that all that had happened was that U2 had discovered irony and Ecclesiastes at the same time. Anyway, that controversy has gone, and it’s OK for ‘sound’ Christians (confession: I hate putting those two words together) to like them again.
Malcolm Gladwell is the latest iteration of this. Journalist come non-fiction writer and expander of brains, Gladwell shot to fame a few years ago with The Tipping Point, a book so successful that the title has become a part of everyday conversation. His latest book is David and Goliath; I haven’t read it yet, but I will. I’ve been stimulated and fed by his work for years. It seems this book looks at the nature of how we misunderstand what leads to advantages and disadvantages, and how we use them. Here’s the thing, though. In the publicity surrounding the book, Gladwell has made it clear that the writing of this latest book has bought him back to some kind of Christian faith. That’s the evangelical tipping point. You can’t move, now, for Christian publications which wouldn’t previously have given his work a second glance but are now proud to blow his trumpet. Never mind the specifics (for instance, he’s not part of a church); let’s celebrate the convert! Don’t get me wrong – I know many Christians read The Tipping Point and Outliers and have found them helpful. However Gladwell is homepage news for the church now (despite not actually going to one).
What’s up with this? It could be any number of things, and is probably a cocktail of all of them and more. It could just be lazy reading of texts (like The Matrix or, whisper it, The Bible). It could be a lack of confidence in what we believe and experience; are we so lacking security that we rush to a celebrity or product for vindication? It could be a sense of losing cultural ground; deep down, it’s apparent to most of us we’re no longer living in Christendom so we cling on to any vestige of a platform we can find. Or maybe we are so addicted to propositional truth that when we get a whiff of it we forget that art tries to do something else, or a person’s life story doesn’t alway’s fit a truth-box? It could be any or all of these, and much more besides.
The truth is that it’s a delicate art to read the times and use them as a way to smuggle God into the conversation. There’s an honest Biblical tradition of it. I, and many others, would argue the Genesis creation stories are just such a smuggling act – not a piece of literal scientific truth but rather a poem in the cultural language of the day aiming to show who was God and that the moon and stars weren’t there to be worshipped but to show us who to worship. Paul did a similar thing in Athens. It’s hard work, though, to use a text (be it a poem, film, play or a person’s life) to take us to the divine Story and do justice both to that text and to that Story. I try to do so sometimes, and get it wrong more than I get it right, I’m sure.
At the end, we just need to read more carefully. Which is hard to do when social media moves so quickly and we feel that we’ve lost the cultural battle. So instead of trying to win a battle, let’s listen. Listen to texts (Bible, film, lives, books, music …), listen to people, listen to God. Then, and only then, should we speak.
Our words may be fewer, but they’ll go deeper and further. And we may just get to enjoy what we’re listening to on its own terms, rather than ours.