Evangelicals v. ‘mainstream Christians’

Remember last month when the big statue of Jesus was struck by lightning and burned to the ground? Well, one reporter is trying to squeeze as much juice out of the story as possible.

Check out this Dayton Daily News headline that read like the sound of nails screeching against a chalkboard.

Response to statue reveals schism between evangelical and mainstream Christians

I’m sorry, what are mainstream Christians? Perhaps the copy editor who wrote that headline meant mainline Christians. Sift through the story a little bit and you’ll find out where the headline probably originated.

The statue’s unavoidable, unapologetic, in-your-face presence has made it symbolic, for some, of American evangelical Christianity. Many believe the caustic comments reveal a growing schism between evangelicals and mainstream Christians.

There it is. Again, who are mainstream Christians? Let’s review: evangelicals make about 26 percent of the country while mainliners make up about 18 percent.

Here’s the summary of the story:

Typically, a church fire draws out only sympathy and support, so why the mean-spirited, even gleeful response from some quarters?
Solid Rock co-pastor Lawrence Bishop explains it simply: “Because that’s the way people are.”
But theologians, political scientists and religious history scholars find far more complicated explanations, and they have followed the unfolding story with fascination.

If you read through the story, though, you’ll find one political scientist, one Catholic theologian, and one religion professor who don’t really have very complicated explanations.

The reporter uses the professors to take a starkly black and white approach where there are evangelicals on one side and then “mainstream” Christians on the other. What about those evangelicals that might have the same kind or even more discomfort with the statue for similar reasons? Trust me, they are out there. Is there really a “schism”?

Here are the three people she quotes: an associate professor religion from Wright State University, a Catholic theology professor at the University of Dayton (is she trying to group mainliners and Catholics to form “mainstream”?) and an associate professor of religion from WSU. The professors are very much entitled to their opinions, but on the surface, they don’t really offer any data or support for their lengthy comments.

Take this quote, for example:

“If you take the statue as a symbol of American evangelism, and then the lightning bolt as a traditional way of talking about God’s judgment, you can see how easy it is for people to read something into it,” observed Ava Chamberlain, an associate professor of religion at Wright State University. “The statue displays how evangelical Christianity has become more and more powerful in American life and more and more powerful in American politics. It’s not just atheists and people of other faiths who are uncomfortable with that, but non-evangelical Christians.”

It’s a fine opinion, but you could find many evangelicals who are just as uncomfortable with mixing faith and politics. And you could probably easily find another professor who says just the opposite, that evangelical Christianity has become less powerful in American life, which is why everyone’s attention seems to be currently interested in the Tea Party or other groups.

Notice that she doesn’t quote anyone who studies evangelicals. I know newspapers obsessed with the local, but is there really no one in Ohio who can speak authoritatively on their perspective? Otherwise, the schism angle just doesn’t seem to work.

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  • http://evangelicalchristianityisevil.blogspot.com/ Aaron Johanson

    It was a silly statue. Most people believe that the evangelical Meme of a personal love affair with their boyfriend Jesus is silly. But its in the face in their horrid praise “music”, their art, their preaching, etc. So yeah, they draw hostile comments from Christians with good sense and good taste. The more the better I say.

    But that article is sort of flimsy.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    People need to know what a schism is. Statues are a matter of taste. Schism means a split in a church organization. Different authority structures. Potentially different doctrines and practices. Schisms are common in protestant Christianity. But no church anywhere is going to split over their reaction to this statue. Some feel it is awesome. Some feel it is too much. It is art not doctrine.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    If religious statues (and art) drive the writer nuts, then he better stay away from Italy–especially Rome and Florence as well as Russia where every square inch of most churches are covered in icons and– with the fall of Communism–popping up everywhere else to go with the ubiquitous onion domes on every horizon. It is all an “unavoidable, unapologetic in your-face prsence” perped by the likes of Michaelangelo, Andrei Rublev, etc.

  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    Is a lightning bolt a traditional way of talking about the Judeo-Christian God’s judgment? The first association that comes to my mind is with the pagan Greek god Zeus and the second is the pagan Norse god Thor. There is a brief mention in Exodus 20 when God gives the 10 Commandments to Moses but it’s not a major theme in the Bible that I can recall.

  • Tregonsee

    I drive past that thing coming and going to a yearly meeting in Dayton. Each time, I have been struck by how truly ugly it was. It will be a pleasure next year to know I will not need to endure it, even for a minute or so. Truly the largest piece of lawn art ever created.

  • Julia

    The first association that comes to my mind is with the pagan Greek god Zeus and the second is the pagan Norse god Thor.

    I was in Cincinnati at the time of the storm. The first thing that came to my mind and my Cincy relatives was “Caddy Shack”. God’s wrath visited on the golfing bishop.

  • http://evangelicalchristianityisevil.blogspot.com/ Ryan Johanson

    This writer has nothing against staues, or art, or Italian statues, or rococo chapels, etc. Just ugly staues, ugly buildings that look like second rate shopping malls, and bad music.

    But to the topic at hand, there are any number of problems with the article AND Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s otherwise good post. Evangelicals can’t even agree on how many people who call themselves evangelicals really are. It is these folks (The ones who argue that a majority of the 26% of people who call themselves evangelicals are not really all that evangelical OR Christian. A typical argument would cite Barna research, Pew, etc. that show that even a majority of evangelicals think other religions can lead to heaven, etc.) that I would argue alienate other Christians. There is your schism. Not over fervently bad art, but rather fervently dogmatic ideology.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Ryan—In the article the writer was NOT complaining about the quality of the statue’s art work, but of its very-as he wrote-: “Unavoidable, unapologetic, in your-face PRESENCE.”
    Frankly, I also don’t think much of the quality of this particular work of “art.” But I didn’t see any words from the writer about its quality–although there were a lot in comments here about that.
    A side angle to remember–the Protestant Reformation was also an iconoclastic movement. As part of that movement stained glass windows and statues were regularly destroyed or defaced. What some find historically strange is any kind of Protestant church erecting statues whether of good quality or not. And maybe that is the root of some Protestants’ dislike of that statue.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for some good discussion.
    Ryan, I was using a working definition of evangelicals set forth by thoughtful researches at Pew. We could talk all day about what defines evangelical. What I wanted to highlight from that was that “mainstream Christians” is a funny word to use when you’re describing the religion with a bigger majority.

    John, good thinking. There might be some dislike of the statue as a historical reaction, so in reference to this article, wouldn’t it be the more conservative evangelicals who might object to a huge Jesus?

  • http://homepage.mac.com/bjmora/rpdenom/Reflist.html BJ Mora

    I think I agree with Sarah’s post that, in the article, mainline + Catholic = mainstream Christian.
    And I agree with John re: images of Christ. Though I wonder how many evangelicals could say *why* an image or statue of our Lord is forbidden.

  • Julia

    Cincinnati relatives say that there is another group of people who don’t like the statue that refer to it as “Butter Jesus”. The photo doesn’t show it, but supposedly it has a slight yellowish cast that makes it look like it was carved out of butter. And that criticism has no connection to religion at all.

    Criticism might also be a geographical/cultural phenomenon. My Ohio niece used to drive New Yorkers who are in town on business out to see the Jesus statute and they are always truly stunned. The Mid-West and West are full of huge kitschy road-side attractions such as the world’s biggest Catsup Bottle, 45 ft high T Rex, huge Paul Bunyan & Blue the Ox, enormous balls of twine, the Corn Palace made of corn cobs, Jolly Green Giant and Car Henge (38 partially-buried vehicles in a circle sticking up in the air).

  • Jon in the Nati

    The Mid-West and West are full of huge kitschy road-side attractions such as the world’s biggest Catsup Bottle, 45 ft high T Rex, huge Paul Bunyan & Blue the Ox, enormous balls of twine, the Corn Palace made of corn cobs, Jolly Green Giant and Car Henge (38 partially-buried vehicles in a circle sticking up in the air).

    Don’t forget this one from the great state of Wisconsin!


  • Canadian

    Methinks she doth protest too much.

  • Dave

    Julia, we have more room for such things out here. And it’s Babe the Blue Ox (sounds kinda Pagan…) not Blue the Ox.

  • Julia

    Jon: Is that a gar?

    Dave: Yes. I was thinking about the available room in open spaces and also that most of these things are usually found in otherwise rather boring locations – geography-wise.

    Thanks for the true name of Babe the Blue Ox.

    And then there’s the Hodag in Rhinelander.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Is that a gar?

    No ma’am. That there’s a fine Wisconsin muskellunge, or ‘muskie’ as we call them in those parts (I may be “in the Nati” now, but I was born and grew up in Wisconsin!).

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    When I first saw the picture I thought, “Why does Poseidon have a Cross on his stomach?” I’d love to find out what the artist was thinking when he designed this statue.

  • Mia

    I find the whole debate about the statue kind of odd. I agree with the poster above who said that Italy is full of Christian statues, but actually, go the other way around the world and everyone will be oohing and aahing over the huge Buddha statues all over. Weren’t people all upset that the Taliban blasted those huge Buddhas carved into the cliffs of Afganistan? I think there are some really huge Hindu ones, too. They are quite fine and exciting to see, so why the double standard when it comes to huge Christian statues? Here’s a list to study the issue further: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_statues_by_height

  • Dave

    Mia, the jocular reasponse to the statue is not because it represents Christ but because it is only half there, or is emerging from the ground. I daresay you won’t find many Italian or Buddhist depictions of that sort. It’s no surprise that its destruction by lightning caught fire (so to speak) in the media.

  • http://www.shelterbyjesus.org Norton Webber

    IMO “Evangelicals” simply are believers who believe what He said, “Go and make disciple of all the nations,” (NIV) and there are others who would not witness to anyone! Matthew 28:19 sounds like a command to me. Some will do it in words and are very good at it, my friend Bob. Others will “evangelize” by how they live their lives, like myself, and 15 years after my John 3:3 experience, I am faced with not having lived it very well. I did share the Gospel with my sons, and sad to say, they live about as far from me as possible. Luke 12:53 prophesys that inevitable outcome.
    The statue? It depends what the builder had in mind. If you go the website above, the home page shows a certain builder asking The Lord to “raise this wall.’ It is a beautiful moment captured on digital.

  • http://www.shelterbyjesus.org Norton Webber

    shelterbyjesus.org is the web site about “a church with people living in it.”

  • Ron

    If you are not moved by seeing the Pieta in person , you might as well be dead. It is as inspired as any piece of writing. Why anyone would be against it would be strange logic indeed. With that said some art is better than others and their certainly has been plenty of bad Christian art but isn’t it really for the beholder to have the say on that matter.
    The term mainstream or mainline Christian Churches always seemed to me to mean the Catholic Church and those Protestant Churches that essentially follow the same basic liturgy for their services( ie , Lutherans, Episcopalians/ Aglicans ?). There are a number of others would probably fall into the category but I think the point of differentiation is from the every increasing number of “stand alone” Christian Churches that pop up all over the place with potentially subtle differences in beliefs. I always thought the term was not of condescension but more a way to define a few categories of the modern Christian era.

  • Aaron

    A statue alone and in itself does not constitute “art”. No one is critising art so I dont know why many of you feel you had to point that out. Many times, especially in public works and the modern era.. a statue is just a statue, nothing more nothing less. They speaks nothing other than what they “are”.