By T.R. Robertson
The narrative of bad news dominates our culture, a culture that increasingly sees religion as a major purveyor of bad news.
“We’re living in a day and age that the news media is a drug-pusher. And negative news is their drug,” says Dr. Peter H. Diamandis. “And on every device that we get—our cell phones, our smart phones, our laptops, our newspapers, our radios—we are fed negative news 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over and over and over again.”
Diamandis, speaking in 2013 at a conference called “Global Future 2045: Towards a New Strategy for Human Evolution,” went on to explain that evolution trained humans to pay more attention to negative news than positive, because on the plains of Africa, ignoring the negative possibilities might lead to our deaths.
Christians may reject the evolutionary hypothesis, but can’t afford to ignore the reality that the narrative of bad news dominates American culture in the 21st century.
Even worse, the culture at large increasingly sees religion as a major purveyor of bad news.
What culture fails to realize, and what the church too often has failed to make clear, is that we’re not peddling religion as a better narrative of bad news. Instead, we’re offering a narrative of good news more powerful and compelling than anything the world has to offer.
The good news—the gospel—is the only truth capable of countering the bad news, especially in regard to the two narratives most pervasive in American culture.
The Narrative of Fear . . .
The daily news and social media paint a vivid picture of Americans as a people afraid. We live in fear of terrorism, immigrants, liberals, conservatives, government, invasion of privacy, cybercrime, gays, and guns.
“Fear works because it leads us into temptation, the temptation to hate and despise the religious other, the immigrant other, the racial other, the sexual other,” wrote Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite in the Huffington Post. “Fear is very tempting to politicians who want to acquire power because it makes people irrational, hateful, and easy to manipulate.”1
Some people fear religious extremism, prompted by the radical Muslim-conducted 9/11 attacks. Many Americans now equate religious extremism with any person (or organization) who actually believes in the supernatural and is willing to base both their personal lifestyle and opinion of other “wrong” lifestyles on those beliefs.
Some religious people have encouraged this perception by jumping on the fear bandwagon, couching their expressions of fear in apocalyptic language. They point fingers, identify enemies, and align themselves with political groups, all in the interest of clamping down on wrong behavior by people who are different.
. . . or the Narrative of Love?
The disciple Jesus loved wrote, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, New Kings James Version). He learned this truth from Jesus.
In Luke 12:4-7, Jesus claimed the “bad news” part of the good news, and he wasn’t timid about sharing it. His antidote to fear was to keep things in proper perspective. Stop fearing people and things that can cause you physical harm. Instead, fear God, who can send you to Hell even if illegal immigrants steal your job, homosexuals subvert your children’s values, and terrorists blow you to kingdom come.
The world is appalled at the idea of a wrathful God who sends people to Hell, but the good news depends on God being God, equally just and loving.
For many, it’s frightening to consider a God who is watching you so closely that he has the hairs of your head numbered; it conjures an image of a supernatural National Security Agency. But Jesus says this is the good news.
God watches us closely in the same way a loving parent pays attention to everything going on with a child. My mom always knew if I had a hair out of place, and she’d lick her hand and try to force that cowlick into submission. It annoyed me, but I knew it was because she loved me.
Our task as Christians in a society gripped with a multitude of fears is to point them to a better story about a God whose master plan is so overarching it makes every other fearsome thing seem inconsequential by comparison. Then comes the rest of the story, about the all-encompassing love of God.
Like countless other young people from the 1960s through the turn of the millennium, I learned to speak the truth in love through the example of Roy Weece, the longtime director of the Mizzou Christian Campus House. I never knew anyone less interested in compromising biblical truth. His devotion to and mastery of the teachings of the Word led many to share his commitment to truth.
Because we CCH residents were required to be actively involved in ministries to the poor, sick, disabled, homeless, prisoners, international refugees, and other people with messy lives in uncomfortable circumstances, we were trained to approach “different people” with love rather than fear. We watched Weece demonstrate patience and love toward atheists, rebels, criminals, foreigners, and a host of other “fearsome” people. By his example we learned that the best apologetic for the God of love is the selfless demonstration of love toward the very people we fear.
No matter how peculiar, how jaded, how perverted, or how dismissive of religion, nearly everyone values a good love story, especially when they see it in action.
The Narrative of Disrespect . . .
The 2016 presidential election campaign has put the narrative of disrespect on the front page.
Campaigns have always included plenty of half-truths and attacks on opponents’ character, but any standards of propriety disappeared altogether early in this election cycle. One candidate in particular seemed unwilling to censor his comments, turning disrespect into his main campaign strategy. Not content to simply share his opinions and platform for dealing with illegal immigrants and terrorists, he took to calling them names, painting them with a broad brush of scornful slurs.
The other candidates began to raise the pitch of their disrespectful verbiage when it became apparent that many disaffected Americans were buying into the narrative of disrespect. In fact, the public had been engaging in
that same approach to disagreement for some time, filling their daily conversations, both offline and online, with rudeness. Radio and TV talk-show hosts, for whom over-the-top insults grab attention and increase ratings, had been cultivating this sort of “normal” behavior for some time.
Worst of all, some Christians have followed along in the flow of the culture, learning to use disrespectful and dismissive language to express their disagreement with opposing viewpoints. Almost without fail, headlines about racial, lifestyle, and cultural conflicts are followed by a flurry of hot takes by Christians on social media feeds. Many include a healthy dose of negative stereotyping about “those people.”
. . . Or the Narrative of Respect?
Jesus exemplified a balanced narrative of respect through his interactions with the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He didn’t hesitate to talk about their sin in plain language, while always showing them respect and empathy. He saw them as people created in God’s image, worthy of respect, and desperately in need of the gospel.
During his conversation with the woman at the well (John 4), Jesus didn’t flinch from reporting the bad news. He called her on the carpet about her many husbands. He exposed the fallacies in her religious views. He also told her the good news about living water.
Even while delivering the “bad news” part of the good news, Jesus showed her more respect than she was used to receiving from even her own people, let alone from a Hebrew man. His disciples were shocked at the way Jesus treated her.
The lesson for us is clear: Never compromise the truth, but always demonstrate respect and empathy for every individual.
Just as the narrative of fear can be conquered by serving others in love, the narrative of respect is best learned by building relationships with others and engaging in dialogue.
There are many churches across the country trying to do just that—from the Halls Ferry Christian Church in St. Louis to Orchard Group church plants in several major cities.
Travis Hurley, former senior minister of a mixed-race congregation in Maryland and now vice president of development and diversity at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, says the key is to be intentional.
“Put yourself in locations that aren’t natural to you,” he says. “I eat at restaurants in the African-American section of Joplin. I attend events geared toward the African-American demographic. I have had to be purposeful in reaching out to some of the black ministers in Joplin because those connections—and, over time, those relationships—wouldn’t happen naturally.”2
The same dynamic is being played out by people who intentionally show respect to prisoners, street people, drug addicts, homosexuals, and others who are usually ignored and disrespected.
Intentionally mixing with “different” people opens up opportunities to share the good news and be heard, because you’ve demonstrated respect by being among them, learning the stories of their lives, and living your own grace-filled story alongside them.
1Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “The Devil in Politics: Why Fear Works and What to Do About It,” Huffington Post, December 12, 2015; accessible at www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-susan-brooks-thistlethwaite/the-devil-in-politics-why_b_8793722.html.
2“An Interview With Travis Hurley,” Ozark Christian College Compass, Winter 2014; accessed at http://occ.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=8149.
T. R. Robertson serves as the supply chain analyst at the University of Missouri in Columbia.