L.B.: Tactical decency

L.B.: Tactical decency July 7, 2006

Left Behind, pg. 218

It's strange even typing this sentence, but here is something on which I agree — at least somewhat — with Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Rayford Steele has prayed the Sinner's Prayer and skimmed the Gospels, and he wakes the next morning with an overwhelming urge to pester his daughter, Chloe, about his newfound faith. He wants to talk to her, or at her, until she breaks down and converts. He wants to strap her into a chair and force her to watch the In-Case-of-Rapture tape until she cries uncle and prays the Sinner's Prayer, too.

But he doesn't do that. And for the first time in the book, Rayford comes across as somewhat sympathetic:

Rayford kept himself from bugging her. He determined not to tell her what he had done unless she asked. … Rayford fought the urge to warn her not to wait too long. He also wanted to plead with her to watch the tape, but she knew he had watched it and she asked him nothing about it. He had rewound it and left it in the VCR, hoping and praying she would watch it while he was gone.

Rayford's decision to refrain from "bugging" Chloe is mainly tactical — he (correctly) recognizes that such pestering would be counterproductive — but whatever his reasoning, he at least acts as though he respects her freedom and her choices.

This is surprising and refreshing, although explaining why may be difficult for those of you who haven't ever belonged to the evangelical/fundamentalist American subculture.

Evangelicals, as the term itself suggests, take the duty of evangelism very seriously. The duty/obligation/command to proselytize is piled high and the weight can be overwhelming — a burden they can hardly carry. Just look at some of the choruses children sing:

Be a missionary every day

Tell the world that Jesus is the way

The Lord is soon returning

There is no time to lose, so

Be a missionary

God's own emissary

Be a missionary today

Nothing wrong with that per se. But in practice, the emphasis tends to fall on the "every day" and the "no time to lose," and the pressure is quite intense to tell your friends/classmates/coworkers/fellow passengers/waiter/barista that Jesus is the way" every day, day after day, whether or not they want to hear it and whether or not you have any sort of relationship with these people, let alone the sort of trusting friendly intimacy that would allow such a conversation to be at all meaningful.

The failure to thus pester these people is often characterized with a misappropriated quotation from St. Paul: "You ate at Denny's without asking the waitress if she knows Jesus as her own private savior? You must be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ!"

That phrase is often used to argue that Christians ought to feel really, really guilty if they are not at all times and in all places making themselves into off-putting, conversation-stealing, monomaniacal, conversion-machines.

It is also used as an all-purpose dismissal of people like me. I believe that evangelism, properly understood, is an invitation — a form of hospitality. I believe that Christians are called to be salt and light — not to be the kinds of people that no one wants to sit next to on an airplane.

L&J, to their credit, disagree. Rayford Steele — their mouthpiece and LaHaye's Mary Sue avatar — seems to recognize that the Great Commission and the obligation to spread the gospel do not require us to offend and scare off those around us. They seem to arrive at this conclusion for wholly pragmatic, tactical reasons, rather than principled ones (i.e., not because treating others with respect is the Right Thing To Do, but because treating them with disrespect doesn't seem to work), but let that slide. Whatever their reasoning, they have recognized that the willingness to be "fools for Christ" does not entail an obligation to be assholes for Christ.

I doubt L&J would go so far as to agree with me about evangelism being a form of hospitality, but here at least they seem to agree that evangelism ought not to be blatantly inhospitable. Elsewhere in these books, they often take the opposite stance, and the preponderant emphasis of the series does seem to come down more on the assholes-for-Christ side of the argument, but here, briefly, on page 218, L&J and I seem to agree on something.

(I tried to find a less vulgar alternative to "assholes for Christ," but the term was unavoidably apt. I realize that this term will be off-putting for some readers — particularly for those to whom the desperate plea above is directed — and that's unfortunate. But again, the term seemed inescapable, and it does seem strange that the naming of the phenomenon should be considered more offensive than the thing itself.)

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