Recently, an image has been circulating as the latest example of a “relevancy fail” by an evangelical group.
They seem to have mistakenly switched the text up in a flyer that seeks to encourage more prayer by presenting a conversation with Jesus as a series of text messages on an iPhone. Instead of portraying a Christian who gives Jesus’ pleading attempts at conversation the cold shoulder, it depicts Jesus as the one who is indifferent to the pleas for intimacy.
It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s not all that surprising. Evangelical churches are notorious for trying to grab people’s attention through pop-culture, either through emulation or parody. The results are often groan worthy.
Like many in the Church, I have participated willingly in the baptism of pop-culture for the sake of outreach and evangelism. I have been in bands that made “Christian Rock,” I have worn Jesus t-shirts. I even have a couple of the obligatory Hebrew and cross tattoos.
I understand why people do this stuff. They want the message of Jesus to reach people where they are.
The problem is that in the context of American evangelicalism, where religious images are often absent, pop-culture representations of the faith can become the formative symbols and images that a faith community encounters. People begin to actually see Jesus primarily through the lens of materialism and pop-culture, both of which by their very nature are constantly in flux. As a result, evangelical faith becomes faddish, salvation is a style and praise is a phase.
When the Church employs superficial symbols to communicate the Gospel, the Gospel can only take hold of people on a superficial level. Jesus is actually seen as a clingy friend in the image who texts you all the time, mediocre mimic-rock defines your view of who God is, and one’s creed is only as deep as a sneaker slogan.
In short: A slogan-branded faith can’t communicate the depth of the mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Perhaps this is part of the reasons there has been such a mass exodus of evangelical children after they graduate from youth group.
Historical Christian symbols, on the other hand, are primordial and polyvalent: Flesh, blood, light, water, birth, death, eating, drinking, hunger and thirst. These symbols are not seeking to emulate the ephemeral but they encompass our entire existence.
The symbols not only contain a wealth of meaning, they contain us. They dig deep into who we are as people in our deepest depths, in our hopes and fears. They are the building blocks of poetry, romance and drama. They have layers of meaning and depths that require a lifetime to divulge. They captivate rather than entertain. In many places these images have been lost, and I believe they need to be reclaimed.
I don’t say this in order to look down on churches that are trying to appeal to the wider culture. Rather, I highlight this to underscore the dangers of attempting to fight church decline and irrelevance with the sugar coated sheen of “cool.” It’s a rush while it lasts, but as trends turn with changing fashion season, you may find that Christ has been discarded along with yesterday’s trends.
What I would like to offer are a few ways to explore the rich heritage of symbols that have been lost by many today. The list is by no means comprehensive, but it does offer a few steps forward toward the recovery of a richer Christian imagination.
Pray with Scripture, Liturgy and Hymns
The church has thousands of years of poetic reflections about who Jesus is the Bible as well as in hymns and prayers. Taking time each day to reflect on a Psalm, the text of a hymn or a prayer in an ancient liturgy can often be an illuminating and inspiring experience.
Generations from the past can often offer insights into our contemporary faith in ways we never would have thought about. Giving them a space to voice their own articulation of the faith is one of the greatest ways to explore the rich poetic heritage of the Christian tradition.
Recognize the Sacred in the Everyday
One of the things I have been most inspired by in Church history is the ways in which everyday things were often viewed as sacred moments. When a meal was blessed, it was with an awareness that eating and drinking were symbols of communion with God. When a light was turned on, it was often accompanied by prayers reflecting on how Christ was the light of the world. I can’t emphasize enough how powerful this kind of reflection can be.
Create Space for Silence
It’s no secret that we live in a noisy world. Part of the reason the creating of a pop-culture Jesus is so tempting is because many in the Church realize that they are competing for the attention of people who are constantly bombarded with images and sounds designed to overwhelm the senses. The fact that there is rarely a moment of stillness in our lives means that we rarely give images and symbols the space they need to settle deeply within us.
Read Fiction and Poetry
This is perhaps the most surprising entry, but it is one that has been essential in my life. When I don’t make time for reading that engages my imagination, my faith begins to lose its ability to become imaginative and my devotion becomes stale.
Take time to read something full of beauty and romance. Think about it. Imagine it. Take notes, highlight passages and talk about it with your friends.
Whether we recognize it or not, Jesus is relevant to the deepest parts of our existence. He can bring life into our deepest fears and darkest times.
But oftentimes in the rush to make Christ cool, communities can lose track of the very nature of the incarnation: that God choose to be revealed in a simple man who endured human life in all of its pain and brokenness and revealed in it the fullness of God’s light and life.
Christ did not come with the ephemeral luster of popular fashion but in universal and timeless language of humanity itself, a language that is never exhausted, for it is the wellspring from which all our deepest longings and highest hopes spring.
Author, Blogger at Patheos, dad, husband. Bread for the World's Catholic Relations guy. Ph.D. student (liturgy and Sacramental theology). Opinions mine.