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Adjectives, Subtlety, Religion and The Press

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Though I cannot find reference to the occasion, apparently Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are addressing a large group of Southern Baptists today.  I ran into this story early in my morning reading today and I found it odd that the AP would carry such a thing.  Candidates meet with constituent groups on a daily basis,  But of course, this is a religious constituency so Americans must be warned that some candidates sidle up to that bunch.  In a short, five paragraph “piece” (more news release really) was this gem:

Organizers said leading GOP and Democratic presidential candidates were invited in May to participate; only Bush and Rubio accepted.

How you read that depends on which side of the fence you are sitting on.  If you are a hard leftie, you look at that and decide most candidates did not want to be associated with the “crazies” in the SBC.  If you are a religious conservative you look at that and think, “Their religious cred is weak and they are there to buff it up.”  Particularly when you consider that candidates whose identity is as a religious conservative, e.g. Mike Huckabee – himself a Baptist preacher, are not bothering to show up.  Either way this seems a bit of a “gotcha.”

But then I ran into Emma Green’s profile of Russell Moore, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in the Atlantic.  And thus I sense an SBC election cycle roll out.  Unfortunately I think Moore has misfired on this one.

Relying on mainstream outlets like the AP and the Atlantic is a sure way for any religious organization, especially one with the mainstream reputation the SBC enjoys, to get pilloried.  From the subtlety of the gotcha in the AP piece, to the less than subtle adjective choices in the Atlantic piece, the MSM is going to do whatever it can to make religious conservative look bad.  Green’s Atlantic piece is an example worthy of some examination.

After some introductory material and some heavy quotation from Moore, who is indeed trying to take the SBC in a different direction than his predecessor Richard Land, Green throws in what ends up being her thesis:

Moore is making an argument for embracing Christian strangeness. “Our message will be seen as increasingly freakish to American culture,” he writes. “Let’s embrace the freakishness, knowing that such freakishness is the power of God unto salvation.”

Moore, with his use of the word “freakishness,” most certainly opened the door for her but Green drove a truck through a pedestrian door.  Moore is making an argument that Christians are different from other people, something that is very true, but in his choice of words he allows Green to write things like, “a distinctive, metaphysically weirder Christianity,” that miss the point altogether.

In theological terms, Moore is trying to move Christians off of a largely legalistic approach to faith towards a faith that transforms on the deepest levels.  Sadly, the greater culture does not even have a clue that such transformation is even possible.  Green talks about religion as a component of “identity,” when standard Christan theology is not terribly concerned with identity.  These are people talking past each other.

Three quick lessons from this mess:

1) Faith based organizations need to get a lot more sophisticated in their use of new media.  This is difficult since so many of the faithful are not up-to-speed. But, traditional media is simply cut off as a means of anything but entirely distorted communication.

2) Deep theological truth is just another idea outside the context of personal relationship.  Moore’s emphasis is a good one but to really work, media – new or old, is not going to be much help.  To develop Christians who are set apart from the mainstream by their winsomeness is a matter of apprenticeship, not speeches, sermons, or books.

3) We have to get a lot smarter in how we talk to people.  In a world where everything is viewed as relative, word choice matters more than you realize.  Here Christianity’s cultural distinctiveness works against us.  Words have subtlety of meaning in the greater culture that it is easy for us to miss.  Moreover, in a world of where relativism holds sway the idea of objective word definitions can backfire easily.

Moore is, I think, on the right track when it comes to changing the emphasis of the SBC.  But his job is to represent the church in the greater culture.  I think he needs to concentrate on that.


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