Buzzfeed’s latest viral video, titled “I’m Christian, but I’m Not…,” features five spruce twentysomethings who look ready to hop into the nearest van and solve a mystery. Instead, they profess their faith, but they begin by describing themselves in the world’s terms. “I’m not homophobic,” says one. “I’m not close-minded,” says another, as the rest assure viewers they’re not “unaccepting,” “judgmental,” or “uneducated.” In a subsequent round, the subjects explain how they’re gay, “queer,” feminist, love Beyonce, and aren’t afraid to talk about sex.
Having established their cultural bona fides, the crew go on to plead for the benefit of the doubt: “We’re all…kind of not crazy,” “We shouldn’t be judged by the people you see in the media, and the people you meet in your everyday life.” One woman says, “A lot of people think that Christianity ruins people, but to me I think it’s people that are ruining Christianity.” Who, exactly? She singles out “hypocrites, and people who put themselves on a higher pedestal.”
Evangelizing is always good. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what’s taking place in this video. What the youngsters are after, says one, is “the chance to explain ourselves.” A two-minute video is probably the wrong venue for discussing Original Sin or the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. If it can get people to drop their guard, that’s no small accomplishment. I do wish someone had added, “I’m not some adenoidal twit in tweed who will poke you in the chest with his pipe stem while quoting Chesterton,” but these meddling kids never claimed to be perfect.
Anyway, they wouldn’t be the first to dress the Gospel in heathen trappings. The practice has a proud history and a fancy name – inculturation. In a sense, Fr. Mateo Ricci’s mission to China was a 30-year version of this video. Vesting himself in the robes of a Chinese scholar, Ricci spoke and wrote of the God of Abraham as Tianzhu, or “The Lord of Heaven,” which tended to link him with the traditional, impersonal Chinese concept of heaven. In his book The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, he tried to demonstrate that Confucianism and Christianity were easy to reconcile, and to make his case, raised no objection when his followers went on venerating their ancestors.
But past a certain point, inculturation becomes what Jacques Maritain called “kneeling before the world” – that’s kneeling as in worshipping, not as in begging, “Don’t hurt me,” which seems to be the aim of this video. That point can be hard to pin down. (The Vatican initially decided that Fr. Ricci had gone too far in allowing Chinese converts to burn incense at family shrines but changed its mind 300 years later.) All the words the actors use – “not homophobic,” “not judgmental,” “unaccepting,” even “gay” and “queer” – can take a variety of meanings, some much more compatible with orthodox Christianity than others. In the video, the meanings attached to these terms aren’t spelled out, which must mean either: 1) their users really have surrendered a share of their inheritance; or 2) they’re setting viewers up for a bait and switch.
But what really bothers me is their readiness to knock down fellow Christians to make themselves look better. No, they don’t name names (or denominations), which is very decent of them. But they also might have been a little slower to accept the media’s depiction of these brand-besmirchers as definitive. Besides, the deeper truth is that every Christian brings an outsized sense of self-righteousness to at least one subject, whether it’s liturgy or abortion or police brutality. If you don’t have a bee in your bonnet about something, if nothing brings out the unreasoning fanatic in you, then – congratulations – you’re a perfected saint.
Ecclesial life begins with the recognition that those other Christians – those orcs in hobbit form – are united to us, not only through the sacrament of baptism, but also through the imperfections that go with being human. That these fresh-faced apologists have overlooked this fact suggests they’ve got a few stumbling-blocks of their own left to clear.
Pardon the boosterism, but I happen to think the gang on the Patheos Catholic channel do this video one better. On one hand, yes – we sometimes highlight those aspects of our character and personal histories that don’t fit what we assume others assume to be the mold. Our blogs might sport subtitles like “I’m a divorced mother with a son,” “I have a potty mouth,” “I wear pants and spell my name in a jacked-up way,” “I experience spells of gender dysphoria,” “I’m a chain-smoking, self-loathing gamma male.” No plaster saints here, nosiree.
On the other, we don’t tarry overlong before thrusting out our buts: “but I prefer the Latin Mass,” “but I don’t use artificial contraception,” “but I won’t dress my son as The Little Mermaid,” “but I think the world’s been going straight to hell since the Serment du Jeu du Paume.”
Or best and most binding of all: “But – as Gordon Gecko should have said – guilt is good.”