By: Mark Earley|Published: September 29, 2009 6:35 PM
Christianity in the Media (Viewpoint)
In modern secular American culture, believers in Jesus Christ are increasingly being painted as “the other.”
“The other” is any individual or group defined as being different in some fundamental way and therefore not belonging. In literature and in history this “otherness” is often based on race, gender, religion, behavior, or appearance.
Seen as lesser or inferior in some way, people may view “others” as less intelligent, immoral, subhuman, lacking legal rights, or having strange, exotic, and threatening worldviews. “Others” are almost viewed as dangerous. Not surprisingly, “othering”—the process of making someone “the other”—often has led to oppression and a deprivation of human rights.
One can witness the “othering” of Christians today occurring in every sector, including media, politics, the courts, and journalism. The July 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine and its cover article, “Like I Was Jesus: How to bring a nine-year-old to Christ” by Rachel Aviv, offers a most recent example.
Writing her first article for Harper’s, Ms. Aviv recounts her summer of 2008 spent embedded with the staff of Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF).
Although Aviv never mentions it, CEF is the largest Protestant Christian organization in the world that seeks to evangelize children. Over 70 years old, CEF has over 2,500 staff and missionaries working here and around the world. With some 40,000 volunteers, they partner with churches and other Christian organizations to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with children.
Appreciation for the mission of CEF requires some appreciation for the person and message of Jesus. It also requires a positive (or at least neutral) view of the results that learning about Jesus might produce in a child’s life. Clearly, Aviv does not have any such appreciation or view.
Without providing any facts to back it up, she describes CEF as having a history of not being forthcoming with the press. She writes that they have been particularly wary of the press after their landmark Supreme Court victory in 1996 against the Milford County School District, which held that Bible clubs could not be denied the use of public school space after hours. Ms. Aviv makes clear that this was a decision with which she disagrees.
CEF staff in New Jersey and New York initially turned down Aviv’s requests to spend time following them when she told them she wrote for a “secular” publication. Finally, one CEF staff member, Joshua Guido, agreed. So in the summer of 2008, she went along with them as they conducted Bible camps for youngsters in a “largely black and Hispanic neighborhood” on the northern edge of Waterbury, Connecticut. I imagine Mr. Guido now regrets his attempt at hospitality.
Her article is reminiscent of another article, “Jesus Plus Nothing: Undercover Among America’s Secret Theocrats,” found in the March 2003 issue of Harper’s and written by Jeff Sharlet, who covertly embedded himself inside the Fellowship, the group that gave birth to and nurtures the Prayer Breakfast movement. Sharlet parlayed this hit job of an article into a book. More recently Sharlet has appeared in a series of rounds on the cable talk shows where he, with the same alarm as someone from Terminex might describe a termite infestation, suggests that evangelical Christians are secretly and insidiously embedded in the halls of power in Washington.
There’s a trend of pieces like this. In fact, one freelance journalist, a senior at Brown University, Kevin Roose, spent a semester at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He considered it his “study abroad” semester. From his experiences he wrote a book called The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.
Publisher’s Weekly called the book “gonzo journalism”—a term used to describe subjective, first-person journalism that blends factual and fictional elements, personal experiences and emotions. Funny, that doesn’t sound much like journalism to me.
So Harper’s, which some would call an equal-opportunity lampooner over the last couple of decades, isn’t alone in this trend. But perhaps it bears some mention that Harper’s, the second longest continuously published monthly magazine, has clearly established a precedent of leaning so far left that it has lost any semblance of balance, and has occasionally stumbled.
Such was the case in 2004, when their long-tenured editor Lewis Lapham wrote a feature for the magazine entitled “Tentacles of Rage,” reporting from the Republican National Convention in New York. In the article he says he watched the 2004 convention and listened to the “hollow rattle of rhetorical brass and tin.”
Problem was, the magazine arrived in subscribers’ homes before the convention even began. According to the Washington Post, he “sort of” apologized. “It was a mistake, but to my mind a very minor one,” he said. “I put it in to meet the September deadline, to give it timeliness....I wasn't putting words in anybody's mouth or remarking on something that didn't happen.” Besides, he said, smiling wryly, “it was fairly accurate.”
Lapham and Harper’s new editor Roger Hodge probably would say the same thing about Aviv's article on CEF. But Michael Kinsley—who was hired to replace Lapham when he was fired, and then fired when they later rehired Lapham—probably has a better take on things. He describes Lapham's writings as “dripping with disdain.” Indeed, that is the entire tenor of the essay on CEF.
Though subtitled “How to bring a nine-year-old to Christ,” Ms. Aviv’s article is not a “how to” primer on conversion. Rather it is a prime example of “othering.” She skewers CEF, their staff, the families of the children who permitted the children to attend the camps, and an orthodox Christian belief. She clearly views them all as “others” who are inferior and dangerous in what they espouse.
Aviv compares the CEF staff to “overseas proselytizers at the turn of the century who swoop down on deprived, often illiterate people and inundate them with foreign notions.” These foreign notions include “Jesus died on the cross” and “I will meet him in heaven.”
Such foreign notions, I might add, which one would hear in any Christian sermon, during any funeral, and at any mass in the world. She ridicules the notions of sin and salvation that are presented to the children and says that the missionaries of CEF use the phrase “believe on Jesus,” which she calls an “outmoded phrase from the King James translation.”
But Aviv has an agenda, and she is not to be deterred. To her the Bible simply offers an entry into a “fairy tale realm” where time is everlasting and good and evil have consequences. By participating in the summer CEF Bible clubs, the children merely “become players in a mythical tale.”
Not surprisingly, according to Aviv, the CEF staff fully embraces this myth as well. They exalt the child as “an ideal believer, a mascot for anti-intellectualism”—an anti-intellectualism that Aviv clearly believes is reflected in the staff of CEF, who “long for an earlier stage of history” where a “world of narrative” allowed their “experiences to no longer be fragmented but plotted and saturated with meaning”
But I was tipped off to a darker side of another narrative when Aviv, a young Jewish woman who describes herself as having been an “uncomfortably religious child, vaguely Jewish but mostly superstitious,” begins to describe the CEF staffer Josh Guido. She needlessly describes him as having “pale skin, soft, green eyes, and a long Italian nose.” The marginalization of others by reference to physical features has a long and dark history. Aviv should know better.
So now, in the new American order typified by this kind of journalism, a Christian outreach to children partnering with literally thousands of churches and organizations like Prison Fellowship is on the grill. With their psychologically damaging fairy tales and mythological narratives, these pale skinned, long nosed, green-eyed anti-intellectuals prey on uneducated and underprivileged children. Michael Kinsley’s description of “dripping with disdain” is unfortunately still all too accurate of some of what Harper’s cranks out under the heading of journalism. My biggest fear is that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg of this kind of journalism. Sadly, there is much more to come.
Aviv’s piece is just a part of a growing pattern of the post-modern, secular media “othering” Christians and those of any religious faith. The patronizing tone of such pieces is certainly bothersome. But much more worrisome is the history of what this kind of “othering” produces over time. What begins as polarity can easily escalate into dehumanization. And dehumanization is only one small step removed from oppression, disenfranchisement, and frequently even violence.
Mark Earley is the president of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
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