Listen, brother: If you don’t want your children to roast forever in hell, you should buy this teddy bear from John Hagee ministries.
That was the message of a product commercial that Matthew Paul Turner noted recently on his blog. You’ll have to take my word for it, since the commercial has since vanished from the interwebs. But you can see a basic ad for Barnabas, the Bible Bear, sans John Hagee, here. Barnabas is a “soft, cuddly companion” that quotes nine Bible verses. The video shows a little girl who is sweetly addicted to squeezing all the biblical wisdom out of this poor talking bear.
Since Matthew Paul Turner was snarking about the bear, and since I’m a contrarian, I was prepared to counter-snark. I don’t find the bear “creepy,” as MPT did. But I did find the advertisement strategy rather loathsome. It was just about that stark: You don’t want your kids burning in hell, right? God has made you responsible to deliver them from the hands of Lucifer. Ergo, you should buy this teddy bear, which by the way my son Matthew Hagee helped develop, and which also brings money into John Hagee ministries through our online store. If you don’t buy this bear, then you just may be falling short in your obligation to save your kids from hell. Perhaps the Hagees reconsidered their hellfire-missile marketing strategy and that’s why they removed the video. If so, good for them.
This is all a very, very pointed way of bringing up a question I’ve been mulling recently, and a question I intend to address in a series of posts here in the coming weeks. I’ll frame the question in more nuanced ways as the series goes along. Even now, my savvier readers will find themselves crying out for distinctions. The distinctions will come. But let me start by putting it broadly:
What is the value of Christian culture?
It’s become popular in more fashionable evangelical circles to cheer the demise of American cultural Christendom. Gabe Lyons (whom I like) proclaims “The Good News About the End of Christian America.” The assertion seems to be that the collapse of “Christian America” will clear the way for a more pristine Christian community and confession — one that would, in the words of World Vision’s Richard Stearns, be more “authentic,” more “back to basics.” We could stop fighting over the Ten Commandments at courthouses and manger scenes in city parks, and instead focus on, you know, serving the least of these and living lives in the imitation of Christ. It’s a festival and false dichotomies in a carnival of caricatures, but here’s what Stearns says:
There was a time when Pastor Curry might have worried about things like posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, but today he’s too busy changing the city of Tacoma and world. This is the work Christians are called to do. Christians can stop worrying about the symbols of the decline of Christian America and get back to the mission Jesus gave us to show the world a different way to live — a way that demonstrates the great character of God: his love, his justice, his compassion, his forgiveness and his reconciliation.
It all sounds so patently obvious, doesn’t it? So obvious that you wonder how anyone could possibly disagree. Stop fighting for political power. Stop scrambling to protect the vestigia of Christian culture. Stop worrying so much. (Hey man,) They’re only symbols. Focus on the substance of Jesus’ mission. Just love the world.
It’s at this point that I find the slow bilious burn of skepticism rising up in my throat. Aren’t symbols important? Don’t they remind us of important truths? Don’t they, at least potentially, have a leavening effect upon the culture? And aren’t we talking about more than mere symbols anyway? Aren’t we talking about a whole set of assumptions and ideals about the true, the good and the beautiful? While a cultural hegemony can certainly be abused, and may be gone for good, aren’t there things to be said for a cultural pervasiveness, for sowing seeds of divine truth and goodness and beauty into the culture? “Christian America” can mean, after all, about a thousand different things.
In my thirty-six years, I’ve lived in/around the San Francisco Bay Area, in Princeton, in Cambridge/Boston and now in Atlanta. I was prepared to find the “Christian culture” of the South off-putting. I expected to find it superficial, artificial, hypocritical. But that’s not really what I found. I’m sure it’s out there. I expected to find lots of plastic-grin men and big-haired women for whom being “Christian” was all about listening to Steven Curtis Chapman, reading Karen Kingsbury and plastering Thomas Kinkade on every wall. Instead I’ve found a lot of people who are deeply earnest about their faith and willing to make dramatic sacrifices for it. And if they have Christian kitsch on the walls it’s because they want to remind themselves of the truths they hold dear.
So I’m left with a question I intend to address in a series of thought experiments here: What value Christian culture? What can we really expect to happen to our society if it’s increasingly uprooted from the classical Judeo-Christian cultural inheritance? What if it would actually be unloving in the extreme to evacuate the culture of Christian symbols, to dilute the pervasiveness of Christian cultural assumptions? Or, to put it more pointedly, while I abhor the way in which Barnabas was advertised, is there a place for Bible Bears?