As promised, I’d like to revisit the previous post about Estus Pirkle’s mind-boggling evangelistic film from the 70s. If you’re anything like me, you go through a multi-stage emotional process when you watch something like “The Believer’s Heaven.” Let me sum up this mental journey, with apologies to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:
Stage 1: Shock.
(Is this real? This came from The Onion, right?)
Stage 2: Confusion.
(Why does he talk that way? Why does he hate New York City? What’s with the white robes?)
Stage 3: Disbelief.
(They did NOT just show that Psycho grandma turn all young again, did they?)
Stage 4: Acceptance.
(This stage is often accompanied by large amounts of snark.)
Stage 5: Joy
(Little Evelyn Talbert!)
Stage 6: Weariness
(A little Evelyn Talbert goes a long way…)
Stage 7: A quick return to joy
(Evelyn Talbert + jazz hands)
Stage 8: Concern
(Huh. There are probably a lot of non-Christians watching this…)
Stage 9: Dismay
(…and right now they’re adding it to their Christians-are-so-freaking-weird arsenal.)
Stage 10: Revulsion
(No no no no no no no NO. That is so NOT how it’s supposed to be. That is NOT what we’re all like.)
Because once the urge to mock the whole thing wears off, what we’re left with is a really bad taste in our proverbial mouths. We’re faced with a very weird, passionate film featuring a very weird, passionate man. The people in the film are breathtakingly dull, even when (supposedly) in heaven. The entire thing is humorless. The introduction and use of Evelyn Talbert is sappy, patronizing, and makes me feel about as uncomfortable as the people in Pirkle’s audience look. Even worse, the film doesn’t know it’s so bad. However genuine and well-intentioned it may be, it commits the worst sin in our culture — ignorance of its own weirdness.
Watching it doesn’t make me want to go to Estus Pirkle’s Heaven, nor does it make me want to follow Estus Pirkle’s Jesus. Instead, it makes me want to run far, far away from Pirkle and his square old zombie flock. His views of Heaven and evangelism fashion and filmmaking and the virtues of singing little people are so foreign to me that if I look at the freakiness too long — like gawking at the two-headed calf at the state fair — I start to recoil in horror.
But — BUT — Pirkle is following the same Jesus I try to follow. Pirkle identifies himself as a Christian. So do I. Pirkle values personal salvation. I happen to be a fan of salvation, too. We have a lot more in common than I want to acknowledge.
So I need to remember this. I need to remember my revulsion at the weirdness of the video, because, to be real honest, that’s the way a lot of non-christians look at us. They see Christians as freak shows. As crazy people. As people who seriously think building a sermon around Little Evelyn Talbert is a good idea. They see our subculture and are bewildered by it. And can we blame them? I don’t think so. We’re so embedded in our subculture of church events and praise-a-thons and elaborate Christmas pageants and gazillion-dollar buildings and positive encouraging music and name-it-claim-it prosperity preaching and single-party political identification that a lot of the time we can’t see how insane it looks from outside our walls.
Compare that stuff to the life of Jesus. This is what imitating Christ looks like? Is this the logical extension of his ministry on Earth? If the disciples showed up today and surveyed American Christianity, do you honestly think they’d smile, pat each other on the back, and say, “Yep. This is pretty much where we hoped Christianity was headed”?
Sometimes we need to look at the entire subculture like we look at “The Believer’s Heaven” — with a critical, outsider’s perspective. The non-believing world is to know we are Christians by our love. By the grace and peace that permeate our lives. Those things should stand out within our culture — they certainly will be different — but in a good way. They stand out because the poor are cared for and the hurting are healed and the outcasts are brought into the fold. Those things are attractive. They’re winsome. In a painful world, actions infused by faith and hope and love are different.
But here’s the deal: You can be different without being borderline crazy.
That’s the Estus Pirkle principle.