Engaging Culture

Should Christians Worrying About Being Offensive With Our Message?

I’ve done a number of posts lately that discuss how spiritually driven media professionals and creative communicators should engage the culture. The question that won’t go away is: How should we engage the culture? Do we become the audience’s friend? Do we debate and argue? Should we be willing to offend?

During the last 20 years, the gay community’s media strategy has been masterful and worth studying. Gay actors didn’t just pop up on screen out of the closet, nor did they protest or boycott networks that didn’t give them access. They began first by getting into the system. Gay writers, directors, and actors worked their way in without any fanfare or criticism. They became respected in the industry as excellent artists. Then someone introduced a character who didn’t date, or wasn’t married – but was lovable and funny. And we thought he was great. We really liked him. Next, the character was more effeminate – not offensive in the least, and very funny. Once again, we loved him.

Next they crossed another line… then another… then another, until being in the closet isn’t even an issue anymore. Actor Rock Hudson nearly went to his grave in the closet, and Richard Chamberlain and Tab Hunter waited until their 70’s to tiptoe out. But today, gay actors can enjoy mainstream success on network television.

But it happened slowly, almost under the radar, with a brilliant strategy of having quality writers and directors create characters who were admirable. How can you protest something or someone who’s so likeable and non-threatening?

I’ve always felt there was something in that approach for Christians in the media. That’s why we’re helping Christians achieve influential positions in the culture, and we engage rather than protest or boycott. That approach has generated some criticism, and I’ve defended it on shows like MSNBC’s Scarborough Country and CNN’s Paula Zahn. And as “The Da Vinci Code” proved, when Christians engage, even though the movie is a huge box office success, it got believers into the conversation. It brought the issues into the public square in a positive way, and as a result, hundreds of books, videotapes, DVD’s, and other teaching resources pointing to the truth came out of that controversy.

But I’m reading Dorothy Sayers, one of my favorite writers (1893-1957). She was one of the famous “Inklings” – the informal group of writers at Oxford that included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. In her book, Letters to the Diminished Church, she writes:

First, I believe it to be a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming with no offense to it. Seeing that Christ went about the world giving the most violent offense to all kinds of people, it would seem absurd to expect that the doctrine of his person can be so presented as to offend nobody. We cannot blink at the fact that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and a public danger.

Powerful stuff. In our present day efforts to embrace the culture, we’re careful not to offend, and I wonder if that has taken some of the distinctiveness out of the faith. Do we live a faith that’s toothless with no power? Are we worshipping Tony the Tiger when we should be worshipping Aslan?

Granted, most of the people Jesus offended were the religious folks. When Jesus was confronted by sinners or the suffering, he was far more tender and gracious. There’s no question that he saved his most fiery volleys for the hypocritical types within the faith.

Also, understand that when I talk about offending, I don’t mean for stupid reasons. Wildly colored hair, prosperity preaching, Jesus junk product offers, cheesy, out of date approaches and styles – no one has the right to be stupid in their presentation of the Christian faith. I’ll be against blue curtains, bad hair, gold furniture, and plants on Christian TV programs until the day I die.

What I’m talking about here is presenting the reality of the Christian faith. One of the great memories I have of Billy Graham is his constantly saying, “The Bible says…” as if to say, “Hey – these aren’t my rules, they come from a bigger source than me.”

But today, we hear Christian leaders try everything in their arsenal to defend a point of doctrine without even actually citing the authority of the Bible. We think the audience will “relate” to it better, when it may actually be positioning the Christian faith as just another “lifestyle choice,” and not the raging fire that transformed the Western world.

There’s no question that I’ve seen more lives changed in Hollywood because people were loved into the kingdom. But that’s on a personal, one-to-one level. Many pastors today preach an exceptionally soft approach to the gospel, and as a result, have millions of fans (yes, fans), and sell millions of books. But do these “fans” actually understand the consequences of their faith decision? Do they understand what’s being demanded of them, and how difficult the future as a believer might be?

My point is that I wonder in our positive desire to embrace the culture, are we losing the very edge of the greatest story ever told?

In our movies, TV, and other media, which approach do we take?

Are we trying so hard to be hip, cool, and contemporary, that we’ve lost sight of the fact that the Christian faith is compelling, not because it’s nice, happy, or positive, but simply because it’s true.

I think if we really believed that, it would dramatically change the way we present the Christian message.

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  1. I think that we have to ask ourselves some questions in order to answer this question about offense.
    Is it my goal to attack a person’s lifestyle so that I can be right and feel better about my own life?
    I am telling the truth in love and the result is simply that those who hear are offended by the truth?
    Is truth so strong that it penetrates the hearts of those who hear (all of us) so that the message and the messenger become one in the same; hated?
    I really think that the heart of Christians is what really makes the difference when it comes to offense.
    You have no doubt heard the story of the woman who, once a year, got her husband to attend church with her; it was on Easter.  The first year that he went the Pastor preached a message on hell, hoping to frighten all once a year attendees to become serious all year about Christ.  The husband got up and walked out after service without saying a word.  The wife was mortified.  She just figured that her husband would never again attend church with her. The next Easter roles around and there was a new pastor, however, his message was just the same.  (You know denominations)  There was, however, something very different.  At the end of the message, when the invitation was given, the husband got up, and rather than walking out, walked to the altar.  The wife was shocked.  When they arrived home the wife asked her husband, “Why did you go to the altar, what was different than last year?”  The husband’s response was, “Last year the pastor preached like he wanted me to go to hell, this year the pastor preached like he was sorry that anyone would have to experience hell.”  
    Point, people can tell whether we are speaking truth in love; or we just hate their lifestyle, thus, we hate them.  Love is what makes the pill of truth go down.  I just think that a lot of Christians are angry with “sinners” instead of hating what sin is doing to destroy these wonderful people that the church calls “sinners”.
    I, like you, love Billy Graham’s approach to presenting truth.  God’s ideas are always easier for me to deal with than those of a denominational manual or a person’s personal opinion.  I think that we are to play hosts, like Jesus who was Lord of Hosts, to people.  We offer them a smorgasbord of His words and truth in hopes that they will receive and their life bettered.  
    On a regular basis, as a pastor, I feel judged by parishioners and it is frustrating…and I know God.  I think that we have to do a better job making the package of our lives match the content of His love; a love that I hope resides in me and other Christians.  The truth must cut two ways; it reveals and then it heals.  Most of the time we just swing truth too reveal our opinions, our convictions, our doctrine without giving any consideration to the real reason for the revealing, which is to bring healing to all who hear.
    Just a thought,
    Mark Crow – Victory Church, Oklahoma City  (victorychurch.tv)

  2. I think your mention of Aslan is very interesting, and a perfect example of art/media working its way into the culture. Aslan isn’t a tame lion, (well he’s less dangerous in the movie version) but the CS Lewis character does not endlessly quote from scripture! And there’s a depth of theology to Narnia.

    There are ways through drama, comedy, teaching, parable that demonstrate the weight of a faith decision. That modern day preachers aren’t doing that, well, yeah you can argue that, but sometimes a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

  3. The insights are profound…Sayers was brilliant…the dynamic however with Lewis, Williams and Tolkien was their ability to use allegory to communicate truth. Media can be a powerful vehicle for allegory and metaphoric speech even in the political arena if we are willing to speak to the culture as Paul did on Mars Hill.

    I personally am persuaded that to remove the offense of the Cross is to deny the message itself, however I am also persuaded that the message of the cross is something that has to be lived and modeled as well as spoken. The rhetoric of our contemporary Christian culture is undergoing great upheaval and the upheaval is necessary. Our inadequate mental models as to how to influence culture are more often based in tele-evangelism on a Billy Sunday approach that has lost its cultural relate-ability.

    We live in a generation that will not be motivated by guilt, hell-fire or brimstone, or even the ceaseless quoting of Scriptures. History has proven that whoever masters the language rules the culture…Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome, Greece…etc….If we are to be salt and light we have to indeed be "wise as serpents" and "harmless as doves" – the gay agenda has operated under that metaphor whether we realize it or not (at least in their public persona as it relates to the real power-brokers who are shaping its ideology via the media).

    I believe that because of the frenzied affects that "any minute Jesus is coming" has had on two generations of believers, we have lost the long view of history that the covenant fathers had, and have wanted change immediately instead of generationally…we need to find the tipping point and strategically position ourselves to be there…we are only at the early stages of what it will take to recapture the effects of a Lewis, a Tolkien, or a Madeleine L'Engle on the current culture. Like it or not, people have come to believe that the American "preaching" cultural phenomenon = the Biblical concept of "preaching"..this could not be further from the truth.

    Thought the article was great. Our belief that we have to convert everyone in order to change the culture is an inaccurate mental model…what we have to do is influence the influencers at the tipping point.
    Blessings for the New Year

  4. "If you reason w/ an arrogant cynic, you'll get slapped in the face; confront bad behavior and get a kick in the shins. So don't waste your time on a scoffer; all you'll get for your pains is abuse. BUT if you correct those who care about life, that's different-they'll love you for it! Save your breath for the wise-they'll be wiser for it: tell good people what you know-they'll profit from it." Prov. 9, The Message bible

    The right word/action at the right moment, to the right listener, can be the difference between revival and continued darkness. Every believer has their walk to walk, their mission to carry out. Every generation has unique issues to address, using the communication methods available to them. Thank God we aren't all called to share Jesus in exactly the same way. Get naked and pitch a tent on the streets if you’re called to or keep quiet until God says it's time to speak.

    For me it's to show up and love lavishly, or simply, though my words and actions -this is my fundamental journey – to be careful of judgment and walk in spiritual curiosity, to carry truth and not be ashamed or fearful to act. Where he leads I intend to go. We 'the body' must mature, survive life's fires (we all have them) and go deep with God. We are his living epistles. What we say, how we say it and to who matters. He's writing his story through us as a testament to who he is. http://nangirl.blogspot.com/ (tattoo me)

  5. Oh yeah and about Pat Robertson — his prophetic batting average ain't so great. He should do himself a favor and 'hid a few things in his heart,' get some confirmation from other prophets before he spouts. But we can't stop him, though the clip I saw I swear Terry Mewusen wanted to stick a rag in his mouth. But there you have it — he has the freedom and access to 'proclaim, thus saith…' Mine is not to defend or deny, but to watch what happens.

  6. Back to the excellent article our "Dr. Phil" did on impacting the culture.

    I do think he has something in looking at how successful the gays have been in taking over Hollywood.

    We need to be training an army of the brightest young people to find their way into the industry and bubble up to the top.

    My question is, where can young people go to get the skills they need to enter in?  Ideas anyone?

  7. Phil,

    Thanks so much for this wonderful essay. I am in COMPLETE agreement with you, as I always am. I want to point out to some of the people who responded that we don’t need to go out of our way to make the Bible offensive, as some insensitive Christians do…. It’s offensive enough on it’s own – if we’re honest when telling the truth of the Gospel.

    I think the greatest sin by Christians talking about their faith is the sin of ommission. We leave out truth because we’re afraid people aren’t going to like us, or we think they aren’t ready to hear it, or we don’t want to get someone mad….. on the on the inner monologue goes in our head, until we’ve watered down the truth to be luke warm and completely non-offensive, because it’s neither salt nor light to the listener.

    So, keep up the dialogue. And to those reading this, have a heart to heart with God and ask Him if you’re really talking TRUTH when you’re sharing your faith, or if you’re playing it safe and not really saying anything at all. If you’re loving in your presentation but truth with your information, then you’ll probably be offensive – and you’ve probably done some eternally work.

    Karen Covell

  8. Mary,
    The training is already happening. There are 19 active ministries in Hollywood doing training, evangelism, prayer, networking, encouraging, etc. Please check out three websites:

    Here is a page of the Hollywood Connect website that lists all of the active ministries in Hollywood: http://www.hollywoodconnect.com/getconnected/getconnected_index.htm

    I think you’ll be encouraged. And pass on the word!
    Karen Covell
    Cirector, Hollywood Prayer Network

  9. I doubt you can present Jesus without offending. If I were an aetheist who sees the news every day, knows of someone who died needlessly, am unhappy with my own life, have only been exposed to pastors who don’t neccessarily represent Jesus, and I don’t know the truth about why Jesus came and what that represents for me individually, I too would probably take offence at someone telling me I am the problem, I am doomed, wrong, and incapable of enjoying my time on this planet.
    Mind you, I don’t think the message should be watered down at all, but rather more thought be given to the intended audience. Successful businesses understand this and go to extreme lengths to find out what makes their audience tick and how best to communicate to them so they will ‘convert’ to their product.

  10. Farbs’ model of the recipient of our offence brings the real point of “OUR” offence – it’s not Jesus and his message that offends it’s us. Our poor skill in presenting his message is the offence as well as the lack of subtlety within the context of what the recipient is regularly used to seeing and hearing. Jesus had complete awareness of a recipients need in His moment of contact and presented exactly what the person needed, we don’t have that perfect skill. Perhaps our offence should be more understatement within the current themes of our times than an outright affront. A total Christian theme with no real world experience usually bombs at the box office or on TV.  

  11. "Are we trying so hard to be hip, cool, and contemporary, that we’ve lost sight of the fact that the Christian faith is compelling, not because it’s nice, happy, or positive, but simply because it’s true." – P. Cooke

    Thank you for saying that!

  12. I believe that in TV and film our faith is most compelling to a viewer when it presents the reality of what they may be going through themselves, such as abuse, divorce, or poverty to mention just a few. This is not hip, cool, or being contemporary, its true evangelism when in spite of the characters behavior they are presented with the love, grace, and redemption of Christ and it changes their lives. We have to stop trying to clean people up before we present the gospel to them. If the realities of our “Contemporary” life cause you to stumble you’re not ready to evangelize.     

  13. Everyone wants change immediately because everyone needs change immediately. The broadcast public includes the kind of people who attempt to solve their problems by getting a paternity test on the Maury show. We need miracles. People get this- that's why they play the lottery.

    Lewis and Tolkien did influence people. They influenced writers who wanted to copy their fantasy style. Lewis influenced believers who could decode his allegories. But to the world, allegories are just great stories. The lost read fiction stories to escape the world they know, not to seek spiritual enlightenment. People don't read Rowling to learn something about themselves by contemplating quiddich matches. And the lost are trying to escape the world they know because they need a miracle and can't seem to get it, and if they dwelled on that it would crush them. People don't find a spiritual route to solving their problems and pursue it. Instead they rule out all the implausible routes while they manage their crises until they can't manage them anymore. Then they pick from whichever routes are left, or whoever will take them.

    Bad company corrupts good character. But good company can't fix a bad character, because they cannot walk together except they agree. There is a Christian in the White House and what is his influence? Do children say they want to be like him, that they want to be saved so they can do what he did? But they now know they don't want to be like K-Fed, not because of his morality, but because his influence has departed. People want influence because they think maybe it's a route to their miracle. But Jesus didn't influence his way out of getting stoned at Nazareth, it was by a miracle that he walked through the crowd and went his way.

    With this article's logic, one could accuse Jesus of dumbing down his own gospel message by not telling everyone he was the cross-bound Messiah up front. When the Bible (the full gospel) is 72 hours of audio and you have a 30 minute telecast window, every message is the gospel message of the woman at the well- "Come with me and let me introduce you to a man who knew everything I ever did." "Follow me" is the only way. It worked for Jesus.

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