Friday, April 29, 2005

Subcultural Snapshots: Evangelical Press Association Convention 2005

Is the press itself a story? Of course! And the evangelical press is no different. I attended this year's Evangelical Press Association Convention (held April 24-27 at the Schaumburg Hyatt) as editor of Cornerstone, and as usual found it both inspiring and infuriating... like evangelicalism itself.

Some snapshots.


Martin Marty, the mainline church historian and commentator, offered Monday a fascinating talk in which he masterfully tip-toed through the minefield of evangelical media voices speaking to surrounding culture. Without offending anyone (well, as far as I could find), he gently suggested that a recalcitrant, arrogant evangelicalism will hardly be heard by a culture already thinking we're collectively idiots. No, he didn't say it like that. And that was the brilliance of his address. I'll post it f and when I find it online somewhere (which I thought it would be; he said as much to me later when I caught up to him, but of course I misplaced the URL). He also cheered me up considerably when mentioning his "appreciation" for "Sojourners and Cornerstone," two voices that "do a good job" representing the minority view among evangelicals. I felt good about that until realizing we haven't printed a hard copy in nearly three years. Hope he meant our website!

Of course, I'd have liked to have heard him say something like he wrote elsewhere:

"Most of the international religion stories these days have to do with theocratic suppressors of freedom, would-be monopolizers of religious expressions. We've been spared such holy wars here. But Frist and company, in the name of their interpretation of American freedom, sound more like jihadists than winsome believers. It would be healing to see them on their knees apologizing to the larger public of believers."

But if he'd have done that, he wouldn't have been the wise, sagacious soul he is.


I really wonder about myself when I find all sorts of symbolic meanings where maybe they shouldn't be. Perhaps I'm ill. But when Hollywood showed up to pimp--er, pump--a new movie to us evangelical press types, I got very interested. What movie would they pitch? Why do they think we're a good audience for this movie in particular?

The movie: Cinderalla Man, a boxing flick drawn from the real life story of Jim Braddock (played by Russell Crowe). I don't mind the story line, really, except for it being raised in this context. The idea that this movie -- a movie about a white man who with his fists provides for his wife and two boys -- is a great evangelical / family flick just rings all wrong to me. I see the boxer, fists upraised, as the unfortunate symbol of evangelicalism itself, and also the symbol of one our current icons, the Man in the White House. And a boxer isn't very appealing to me from a Christian point of view; Jesus with boxing gloves? Nor do I like the underlying idea, the traditionalist idea of manhood, the male going "out there" into a hostile world to provide for his wife and children. Hopefully, his wife (played by Renee Zellwiger in the movie) will be more three dimensional than at present I suspect she will be. I hated the trailer shown to us, perhaps especially because I hate the fist to the face evangelical approach to the world so much. And this movie plays to that, a fact I can't help believe led to this movie being sold to us.

See what I mean about being ill?


Two words that don't go together: "Christian" and "comedy." I wish they did. They really ought to. But somehow, whenever I encounter Christian comedians, they seem to be the only people in the room with an even poorer sense of humor than I have. And that is tragic. Chonda Pierce was the epa's comedian of the night Tuesday, and actually she was better than I expected. It was still fairly terrible, but of course one must factor in my own disconnect re some of the more idiosyncratic elements of evangelical culture, which many of her jokes focused on. She did have a tremendous ability to mock herself and us simultaneously, and that at least made it bearable. I need a little self-mocking. One postscript: Doug Trouten, the Executive Director of epa, is a very funny guy. So I guess some Christians can do comedy.


Giveaway newspapers and magazines from the various publishers, stacked on tables for the taking... I had an idea, which I'll report results on later. The newspapers in particular seemed to have a whole lot of political commentary. I grabbed nearly every one there and will soon offer here on bluechristian a likely non-scientific but still somewhat interesting breakdown of what I find. I would like to find out they had a variance of opinion on all sorts of things... but suspect I won't find that. Please, God, let me be wrong!


The last night, Wednesday, I again found myself bemused. What follows will likely endanger the remaining shreds of my evangelical reputation. But World Vision International's presentation on child prostitution worldwide, which should have been a slam-dunk winner, instead left me with a wierd sense of something getting left out. We heard from a WV spokesperson, who assured us that his organization was banding together with the United States government to arrest pedophiles for crimes committed against children overseas. No doubt the fact that westerners, and Americans in particular, make up a large number of "sex tourist" abusers of children is highly disturbing; a reported 80% of adults using children for sex in Costa Rica are Americans, if I heard World Vision correctly. I'm glad to see World Vision and others making this an issue. What was less gladsome to me was the playing of a video of part of George W. Bush's United Nations speech, in which he chastised other nations for not protecting the world's children from pedophiles and the sex industry. He was, I painfully felt, being used as the ultimate evangelical spokesperson for purity and righteousness. I was supposed to feel great about it, but could only remember the Muslim mother in Michael Moore's "Farenheit 9/11," crying out over her dead child, "Where is God?! Where is God?!" Say what one will about the bombastic Moore, one of the bombs our President ordered dropped had killed that mother's child. Purity and righteousness, I suppose, are in the eye of the beholder.

So. I found a certain narrowness of vision from World Vision... Maybe next year we could see an evangelical icon that didn't box or drop bombs? Again it seems evangelicals focus on private moral issues yet fail to see the implications of our collective cultural bias and blindness. Ah, but what do I know...?


Billy Graham's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, closed out the evening and the convention. As an egalitarian on gender issues, I had to love that. "Our message is Jesus," she said, and urged us not to get sidetracked by other issues. She even seemed to hint that the World Vision focus on child prostitution could easily become a tangent from preaching the gospel. And truthfully, she's partially correct. Jesus alone can rebirth us, transform us, and through us transform others. Despite a stumble when discussing the 2005 tsunami tragedy, her main message gave me a thread of hope. "Jesus!" she said again and again, a faint southern twang on the first syllable sounding a bit like her father. "He's what we have to offer that will change the world."

I agree. Yet still, Jesus himself said that we will find him among the poor, dispossessed, and prisoners. "When you have done it to the least of one of these, you have done it to me." This is the element of biblical faith often lacking among us evangelicals -- yes, I'll still gingerly call myself an evangelical (though others may contest such my membership). We are all too often like a member of a romantic couple, half-drunk on our love but not having yet the faintest idea of what that love will cost us, where it will take us, and how terrible it is to be vulnerable in the midst of love. Jesus' end -- the cross -- should be a clue. If we follow his example, become his disciples, shouldn't our symbol be more the man being struck with a fist than the man doing the striking? Shouldn't our icon be Corrie Ten Boom instead of George W. Bush? Sometimes I wonder if we'll ever grow up.


I ponder the last picture of epa 2005, a picture of my own sense of seperateness. How much of my angst is ego? How much of it is rooted in my own felt need to be a contrarian, a gadfly, an annoyance? Too much, no doubt about that. But is there something more to it, something that is real and true and even of God? Honestly, I'm still sorting that one out. I do probably need to heed Rick Warren's reminder, "It's not about you."

But it is about Jesus, like Ms. Graham-Lotz says. And being about Jesus, it requires a sense of awe, reverence, and even fear. For myself as a writer, I do think I need to talk more directly about Jesus, and more often, because Anne Graham Lotz is merely echoing the words of World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Christ is the only significance."

Are we evangelical journalist-types writing like we actually believe that? And, I suppose more to the point yet, are we living like we believe it? If we are doing either, our writing will reflect more pain, more failure, more confession and repentance, and ultimately more truly a sense of grace, than I fear it does now.

Pray for us.

1 comment:

Stan F. said...


I just wished I had stayed to see Cinderella Man, since it has been getting rave reviews. Now I'm going to have to pay to go.

Don't know how ill you are, but you may have a bit of a temperature.

I'm surprised you found meaning in what Martin Marty said. He was a major disappointment. I didn't have a clue as to what he was talking about. I would have preferred him walking straight ahead if that is what tiptoeing does. If people invite him to speak knowing his views, he should take it as an opportunity to express them clearly and forthrightly without being nasty. That would have been a witness.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at the EPA. Bet you didn't find a lot of variety in those newspapers' editorial voice.

Grace and peace