Wednesday, August 09, 2006

An Open Post to David Byrne


You're a fine musician and during the 80's I really enjoyed your work with the Talking Heads (though my musical tastes have veered in a different direction of late). I discovered your weblog through the highly publicized post you did on the film Jesus Camp.

True confession here -- the excerpt from your article that I saw on Boing Boing ticked me off:

There were some perfect sound bites — at one point Pastor Fischer instructs the little ones that they should be willing to die for Christ, and the little ones obediently agree. She may even use the word martyr, which has a shocking echo in the Middle East. I can see future suicide bombers for Jesus — the next step will be learning to fly planes into buildings. Of course, the grownups would say, “Oh no, we’re not like them” — but they admit that the principal difference is simply that “We’re right.”

My first gut reaction was to fire off a missive asking if you understood the Christian understanding of martyr as one who dies for the faith, not as a murderer, but as one who is murdered? The principal difference isn't "We're right" -- the difference at hand is that our messiah was a martyr who didn't order executions, he forbade them (the principal difference is a matter of theological debate -- I would say that it is the difference between a religion of grace and a religion that demands honor, but that is a subject for a different discussion). Jesus accepted his death -- he didn't resist his persecutors. He instructed his disciples not to resist with the sword. A christian martyr is a witness to this tradition. This is the understanding rooted in the tradition of the early church -- all Jesus' disciples (save his betrayer) were murdered at the hands of dictatorial regimes. This heritage carries on through the Roman empire's persecutions under Nero, Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, and others. This heritage is informed by St. Augustine's City of God, in which Augustine condemns suicide for the sake of the cause.

When contemporary evangelicals talk about martyrs (which is a rare enough occurence), they think of the Ecuador martyrs, whose only crime was travelling deep into unknown territory to share the story of Jesus with isolated tribes. Their story is memorialized in the film The End of the Spear. We also think of the hundreds of Christians across the globe who are imprisioned and jailed simply because of their faith (the website Voice of the Martyrs tells the stories of many of them). These Christians are not advocating armed rebellion or toppling of governments. They're not plotting to fly planes into buildings. They're simply trying to peacefully share a message of grace and redemption that has brought fulfillment.

When some who claim to be Christians advocate for violent practices, they are quickly isolated and called cultists (David Koresh is a prominent example -- though evangelical Christians have fallen over backwards disavowing the outrageous utterances of Pat Roberston of late). Mainstream Evangelical Christianity has been quick to admit its past mistakes and quick to condemn the violence of the lunatic fringe -- has Mainstream Conservative Islam been so quick? You must understand, I've heard plenty of Rhetoric comparing "evangelical Christians" to Al Qaida -- that's like saying Joel Olsteen is no different than Osama Bin Laden -- the comparison is absurd. Nor are megachurch attenders mindless zombies who take whatever the preacher says as a dictate from on high (most of my parishoners are quick to tell me when they have a beef with something I've said -- and I suspect that the same is true in larger churches). I feared that your post was encouraging a broad equation of fundamentalist islam and evanglical Christianity. I was preparing an aggressive response to what you had written.

However, I went back and read your post a second and third time. Underneath the broad characterization of evangelicasl more nuanced. Yours was not another screed against evangelical Christians, but rather a heartaching response to what you saw in the film. I sensed that you were truly saddened by what you saw. I also checked out the IMDB user reports on the film and heard more of what was portrayed. As I looked at IndieWire's news stories on the film, I quickly discerned that you were working within the realm of what the filmmakers presented: a summer bible camp unlike anything I've experienced.

Please understand -- I've grown up going to pretty conservative christian stuff all my life (I'm 34 -- raised in the Bible Belt -- and I'm a Presbyterian Minister in the Midwest). What this film portrays is a fringe slice of the conservative, evangelical experience. I've been on dozens of summer mission camps where we rebuild houses or go to Mexico to build new homes -- and the kids sang songs and talked about loving Jesus. I've been to weekend camps in North Carolina and weeklong camps at the beach. I've participated in more Vacation Bible Schools than I've ever cared to imagine. Almost without exception, the focus has been on Bible stories about Jesus, learning to love others, learning how to pray, learning how to share our stories of faith in a meaningful way, and trusting in Jesus' ability to heal our inner wounds. Never, ever, ever have I experienced the kind of political indoctrination that you and the IMDB reviewer describe.

That doesn't mean it's not out there -- what it means is that the evangelical movement within the US is much broader and more complex than you can imagine. It may surprise you to know that not all evangelical conservative Christians are agents of the Republican party -- indeed the recent book Crunchy Cons seems to indicate that there are values that you might share with many of us evangelicals.

I must give you the benefit of the doubt that you were responding to the portrayal in the film, and not to evangelicals as a whole. I appreciate your willingness to admit that we all advocate for our positions, we all enjoy the comfort of our subculture. I'm thankful for your quickness to point out that much good has been done by religion. But please know that Evangelical Christians by and large are not indoctrinating our next wave of suicide bombers. Instead we're teaching our children to love God with their hearts and minds and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Thanks for your attention -- I'd welcome further dialoge offline if you so desire.

Soli Deo Gloria (a signoff that was used by JS Bach on many of his manuscripts)


Index of other articles about Jesus Camp:
* Indie Wire Biz article on the distribution and intent of filmmakers
* Indie Wire comparison of the film to other summer camp documentaries
* About Loki Films Webpage of the producers of Jesus Camp