Friday, January 11, 2013

The Christian Signal and the Worldly Noise

Johnnie Moore, Dirty God: Jesus in the Trenches

Broadcasting professionals speak of the “signal-to-noise ratio” to describe how much information reaches the receiver, and how much vanishes into static. We can think of today’s media-saturated world, where we’re bombarded on all sides by constant static, as the noise. This would make any message we must urgently convey—political, social, religious—the signal. And it’s getting hard these days to push any signal through the noise.

Christian academic Johnnie Moore attempt to recast the often sanitized Christian story in terms accessible to modern seekers. In some ways he resembles better known writers like Shane Claiborne and Rob Bell, who dare suggest that Biblical Christianity little resembles the rote observances in modern churches. I agree with Bell, Claiborne, and Moore. But Moore uses bland language in mundane ways. His signal would never penetrate the noise.

Moore’s thesis, which any Bible-believing Christian would accept, contends that the Christian message provides a powerful counter to earthly narratives. In a world enamored of human power and earthly glory, Jesus chose a path of humility and poverty, leading to his own death, so that he might ennoble ordinary people like us. If we trust in Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection, we can know the honor once reserved for priests and kings.

Again, I agree with this message. But Moore pitches it in “seeker-friendly” language designed to not scare off spiritual hopefuls. Though I understand this motivation, Christian language is so innately bound to Western society that I doubt many people really don’t know what core doctrinal language means. By stripping away even elementary terminology, Moore reduces his otherwise admirable signal to the level of the surrounding noise.

Consider these representative examples:
What I like best about the narrow way of grace versus the wide way of works is that all along the way are massive billboards that say in every language of the world: “You’re not guilty! You’re forgiven! You’re healed. Things are okay!” (56)
Jesus can hold the universe, which he created, in the palm of his hand. Even so, Jesus comes to us totally differently from any other god. He entered history as a God who looked more like man. (33)
Grace is unorthodox. When it is a part of someone’s life, it should cause others to wonder why this person is behaving this way. Someone who lives a lifestyle of grace should seem to live out a different ethic. (121)
[Early Christians] thought of Jesus the way we think of a fireman rescuing a child from a house crackling and exploding in flames. They thought of Jesus the way we think of a lifeguard pulling a drowning man from the tumbling ocean. (105)
Understand, Moore says nothing I dispute. Despite his unorthodox use of the word “unorthodox,” in terms of Christian belief, everything he says is spot on. It’s also ordinary. Christians and non-Christians alike have heard this static for most of their lives, and it’s banal. Spiritual seekers want a compelling counter-narrative that speaks to their lived situation, not Sunday School pamphlets that repeat pedestrian slogans they’ve heard since childhood.

For instance, what is a “lifestyle of grace”? Moore talks about it in broad, sweeping terms. But his only concrete example is the radical forgiveness the locals extended following the school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. While I like that example, it contradicts Moore’s point, because Moore claims Christians should embody Christ in ordinary circumstances. Nickel Mines, and its school, are Amish. Moore doesn’t comment on the gap.

He also misses the contemporary implications of Christ’s social message. He notes, correctly, that Jesus preached against religious leaders of his day. But he elides the fact that the religious leaders were also political leaders, and that the Temple priests appeased Rome to retain their earthly power. Moore teaches and administers at Liberty University, which has allied with the Republican Party and U.S. nationalism. The parallel goes unheeded.

Throughout, Moore’s reliance on second-person-singular language bugs me. Jesus came for you. Jesus’ blood sets you free. Moore occasionally says “we,” but not very often. His message lacks the community spirit of the Book of Acts, or the Hebrew urgency of culture-wide prophetic awakening. Again, Moore isn’t wrong; his signal just gets lost in the noise.

Our world suffers unprecedented vulnerability to religious extremism, woowoo cults, and existential despair. Many people desire spirituality, but Christianity offers sweeping bromides to people seeking a real, substantive counternarrative. Moore never says anything out-and-out wrong, but he reinforces my recurring frustration with current Christianity’s biggest failing, its appalling vagueness.

On a related topic:
If God Is Awesome, Why Is Christian Lingo So Tedious?

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