Sunday, December 3, 2006

Is Engagement Compromise?

Just survived a 4 session forum on Da Vinci Code in CDPC. The community of faith was appreciative, and happy to see a hunger to discover more about Christ and the Bible deeper.

Thank you for the support and encouraging words. The Power Point slides will be made available upon request at hedonese at yahoo dot com

Has been a hectic month... More invites came in from International Medical College student group and Methodist Boy's School while the topic is hot, I hope to finish them before going off to Minneapolis in July. (Bethlehem Baptist, here I come!)

The Westminster Confession mentioned a church leader's duty to refute prevailing errors BUT warned them not to raise dead heresies from the grave :)

Which category does Da Vinci Code fall into? I find Bock's blog helpful here (quoted in full)

Two questions I often get are: (1) does not engaging bring more attention to the novel, feed its marketing apparatus, making more money for someone who slandered Christianity? and (2) does not engagement constitute compromise, a kind of dancing with the devil? Where does one draw the line on engagement?

These are fair questions. I think the responses also make sense. It is certainly the case that engaging the Code and other controversies like it fan the flames of attention and bring the novel more visibility and probably more money. But there are other factors in this particular case that made engagement necessary. In contrast to the Last Temptation fo Christ, which one coudl ignore becasue it never had "legs," this novel did hit a cultural nerve as indicated by its sales in the millions and the questions it caused readers to ask about the early history of Christianity. The novel was already a cultural phenomena by the time I was asked to write about the movie (I did not seek to write Breaking but was asked to, so I did not take on the project for money but out of a belief in the need to respond with substance). By then, the novel had already sold close to 10 million copies in its first few months.

This meant that the novel's ideas were already circulating, drawing both much
attention and public discussion. This also meant the novel had to be engaged. To be silent was to let these ideas simply have the floor by default. To protest was simply to accomplish the same thing.

The church needs to find a different way to dialogue with the culture than simply being angry or whining. If Christianity's case is stronger than Dan Brown's views about it, then we do everyone a service by letting them know that. Failure to respond with substance gives outsiders the impression we do not have a case or have somethign to hide. We cannot make progress by simply affirming our view without backing. Everwhere where engagers have spoken they have made clear their objections to the book. In a world where ideas matter, contending for them in the public sqaure is what the church must do.

More than that, getting this information out was important to the educating of the church as well as the culture. This education became necessary because the church had not done a great job of educating its members about its early history, leaving them exposed to the negative influence of a work like this. Dan Brown exploited a black hole in people's knowledge, a black hole the church had allowed to exist because we tend to only discuss experience or felt needs. Engagement not only
makes a positive case to those who are curious about the truth of religious claims, it also protects the church from ideas that can function like a destructive virus if it catches hold.

But what about the second question? Is this kind of engagement not dancing with the devil? Was not the decision to write for a site Sony underwrote the wrong move? I think not. My goal as I stated in the May 14 blog was the reader. This meant going where the questioning reader was. Although there were many Christian sites for whom I and others also wrote, it was less likely that the skeptical reader would visit such a site. So it was judged an important consideration to go where the skeptical reader might be. There was no money accepted from Sony to write these articles. This kind of commitment to engagement is why Jesus ate meals with who he did, entered syangogues and temple squares to teach. This kind of commitment to engagement also explains why Paul went to places like Mars Hill.

But where does one draw the line? Why is not the next argument that we should go to immoral places to be with the unbeliever? The answer to that question is simple. What this kind of exchange does is engage with ideas, not acts, in the public square. The church has always been about sharing its ideas with those in the public square, including engaging other theological, religious, and philosphical ideas.

Another objection often follows. Does not that exchange risk giving attention to the ideas being challenged? Yes, that is a risk, but only if the case of the engagers is weak. That has not been the case with the novel. I think we can argue that certain ideas were softened between the novel and the movie, as some claims of the novel did not have as key a role in the movie (No mention of 80 gospels and only a quick reference to Nicea). Other ideas were debated in the movie when they were simply presented as true in the novel. Not only that but the media's fact checkers of the
"debunkers" generally agreed that they had exposed the errors in Brown's self-proclaimed careful research. With doubters of his claims coming from all stripes of theologians, historians and art historians, engagement had the desired impact of leaving people to emphasize that the book in only fiction after all. This was a good outcome for those considering the claims of the book, since one should not learn history through fiction.

So there is a risk in engagement. It does raise the visibility of a controverisal topic. However, when that visibility already exists, it is imperative to engage, lest the impression be left that the controversial view, not made so very public, is also true. Engagement is not compromise; it reflects a genuine concern that people not be misled.

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