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Culture, faith collide in America

/ Source: TODAY

Although 90 percent of Americans claim a belief in God, public expression of faith is more contentious than ever. Even as discussion of religion floods the media like never before, the rhetoric is divisive and hyper. Fed up with the angry, strident language filling the airwaves that has come to represent the Christian faith, author, director, and follower Dan Merchant set out to explore the collision of faith and culture in America. What is all this fighting really about? The effort led to “Lord, Save Us from Your Followers.” Here's an excerpt:

I think America has become a bumper sticker culture — we’re way too comfortable with one-way communication. We like to tell people what we think, but we don’t like to listen and I fear we’ve lost the fine art of conversation … which explains why I’m standing in Times Square at 11:15 on a Tuesday night in December dressed like a human bumper sticker.

Call this a creative attempt to resurrect dialogue and understanding or, as my wife affectionately puts it, “I can’t believe you’re going to go out in public in that stupid suit just to have a conversation with a stranger.”

Yes friends, desperate times demand desperate measures.

I should let you know that I’m taping my “adventures in conversation” — if I can actually engage people, people whose beliefs may vary from mine, in genuine conversation then I want some proof to show the skeptics.

Crossing Broadway I stride confidently in my Bumpersticker Man suit toward Jimmy the cinematographer who keeps pulling his headphones off and making that “I can’t hear anything” face.

“The wireless won’t work with all this interference,” he shrugs. I follow his hand as he gestures at the plethora of glowing video screens, neon signs and electronic billboards that define Times Square. I notice the ABC television studios across the intersection and, above me, the MTV studios. I’m probably not the only guy on the block with a wireless microphone.

“Could be the radios in the taxi cabs,” Jimmy thinks aloud.

“The interference could be caused by small bursts of evil emanating from MTV,” I say with a straight face.

After twenty years of friendship and labor together Jimmy merely cracks a smile and keeps working, “You’ll have to go hand-held.”

He pitches me the stick microphone.

I notice a couple strolling down the wide New York City sidewalk toward us, “We’re on,” I whisper. My eyes get wide as I gesture at the pair with my eyebrows. It may look like a nervous condition to the untrained eye, but Jimmy understands my subtle signal and in a flash he has the camera on his shoulder. Young Jim Bob from Wichita, Kansas, spins his finger in the air to indicate, “we’re rolling.” As the couple approach they can’t help but be drawn in by the mesmerizing power of the bumpersticker suit, their momentary bemusement is all the opening I need.

“Hi, can I ask you five quick questions for a documentary film we’re making?” The man, tall handsome man with gray hair and beard, glasses and a gray jacket — who reminds me a little of Harrison Ford — exchanges a quick glance with his cute, bespectacled companion, “Okay, sure.”

DAN: How do you think the universe began?LOU: With a big bang.DAN: Where do you think you’ll go when you die?LOU: Nowhere.DAN: Just in the dirt someplace? LOU: From whence I came.DAN: Anytime you can work poetry into an answer you’re in good shape. All right, third   question: Name something Jesus Christ is known for.LOU: (thoughtful pause) Raising the dead and caring for the poor.DAN: Those are two pretty excellent feats. Okay, name something the Christian people are known for. LOU: Today? Selective hatred and intolerance.DAN: The ball kinda got dropped somewhere along the way?LOU: Between Jesus and the Christians I think it was dropped a long time ago.DAN: Okay, last question: I’ve heard the phrase “Culture Wars,” do you know what this phrase means?LOU: The Culture Wars? Sure, it’s secular culture that’s based on reason opposed by religious culture based on superstition.  DAN: So following Jesus is a superstition or you’re saying religion, in a broad sense, is superstitious?LOU: Believing in Jesus … (Lou breaks up laughing), I don’t believe I’m doing this … Yes, following Jesus as He is followed today, as a religious icon, is superstition. Following Jesus, the man, who is probably, in some way, a Son of God, is not. DAN: I appreciate the distinction, I see where you’re going with that. In conclusion, I’d appreciate it if you’d take a moment to gaze upon my suit, I am Bumpersticker Man, is there a particular emblem or bumper sticker that speaks to you?

Lou takes a moment to study the bumpersticker suit before selecting a favorite.LOU: Let’s see … I like “God Spoke and Bang It Happened.” I think that fits nicely with Darwin and the Jesus Fish — not a Jesus Fish but a Fundamentalist Christian Fish.DAN: (laughs) Thanks. The whole idea with this suit, well, it seems to me like complex ideas are being reduced to simple bumper sticker slogans and that seems good enough for a lot of people. What are you finding?LOU: I find that I agree with you, complex ideas are reduced to bumper sticker statements and that there is no conversation between the two extremes that are represented on your costume.  I shouldn’t say costume — on your clothing, sorry.DAN: No, I’m not offended by “costume” because we’re having an open dialogue, this is how we do it. We’re actually having a conversation. My name is Dan, by the way.LOU: My name is, uh, is, Lou, good to meet you. And that’s my real name.

Lou and I shake hands and share a final laugh. I have to tell you I was exhilarated by this chat with a smart and interesting person … who doesn’t believe what I believe. I loved that Lou was open to the idea that he and I could complicate our national conversation together by respecting each other and sharing with each other.

In a way, the Bumpersticker Man suit is my twist on the time-honored tradition of the believer on the street corner with the sandwich board. You know the classics, “Repent or Burn”, “Repent Sinner,” “Jesus Loves You” and even the more friendly “John 3:16”, but somehow, over the years this one-way, one-sided approach failed to foster engagement and mostly just alienated the folks they most wanted to connect with. That approach always seemed like, “I have the answer and you don’t. Come over here and I’ll tell you why you’re screwed up.” Even if we do have the answer, do you think anyone is going to listen to that? 

And as a believer, a Christian, a guy who loves Jesus, these street preachers would offend me because they assumed I needed them to lecture me, to save me. They never asked where I was coming from and it didn’t seem as though they cared. Well, I want to know why the Gospel of Love is dividing America and if I’m going to find the answer I’ll have to do more listening than talking … but first I have to get people to talk.

The thing about the bumpersticker suit that stops people is the dichotomy on parade. Most nut jobs on the street who are wearing a ridiculous get-up like this only display their own point of view.

It becomes clear to any onlooker, “This guy is just going to shove his idea of the world down my throat and I don’t need it.”

That wasn’t going to work for me, I wanted the bumpersticker suit to mirror the debate we’re having in our country. The suit is an invitation of sorts to anybody who wants to have a conversation.  That’s why I went out of my way to represent as many points of view as possible with the bumper stickers and emblems.

You can see people trying to reconcile why there is a Jesus Fish positioned next to the Darwin Fish, a “Real Men Pray” sat next to “Free Jesus”, “Where’s My Church, Dude?” contrasted with “Vote Pro-Life” and so on. All the assumptions go out the window, “Hey, whose side is this guy on anyway?” I hoped this playful complication would signal to people that I was “open”, I was willing to listen and my main priority was to jump-start a dialogue in this country.

It’s around a quarter after midnight when a sharply dressed German guy in his early 30’s named Sven comes up to me and starts asking questions, not about my bumpersticker suit (which Sven apparently considers mundane), but about a local jazz club. I’m not much help, but I ask him to play Five Questions before he heads over to Birdland.

Before Sven can answer, I see a familiar face out of the corner of my eye. I glance over to see two young women, one of them I recognize … but from where? Suddenly I hear my voice bellow, “Hey, that’s Morgan. We know her.” Morgan? Name tag? Oh, yes, of course, Planet Hollywood. Jimmy and I flew in from Portland today, starving, we walked a few doors down from our hotel to have dinner at Planet Hollywood. Jimmy and I are such movie and music fans we always seem to end up at a Hard Rock Café or a Planet Hollywood.

Morgan and her friend, Kerry, a fair-skinned redhead also in her twenties, pause on the sidewalk. Morgan is trying to figure out why Jimmy and I look familiar. Kerry looks at me like I’m insane (the Bumpersticker Man get-up is an acquired taste) and then at Morgan like, “Who the heck is this goofball?”

Not one to forget my manners, I make the introductions, “Sven, this is Morgan. She served us our dinner tonight at Planet Hollywood. She was actually a really good waitress — and I’m not just saying that.”

Morgan smiles and takes a couple steps toward us, “You gave me a great tip, so thank you.”

“You earned it. You were fabulous,” I laughed.

“Well thank you.”

“Hang on for thirty seconds, I’m playing Five Questions with Sven.”

Morgan and Kerry huddled off to the side while I put my German friend through the paces. Morgan looked on with bemusement, and then it was her turn.

DAN: How do think the universe began?MORGAN: I guess I’m a believer in the Big Bang theory. But, I think if you research it you see how … just the idea of that happening there has to be some sort of intelligent force behind it, you know? I do believe in the Big Bang and it taking millions, no billions of years to get here, right?DAN: I think I have that bumper sticker right, here —MORGAN: “God spoke and Bang it Happened.” DAN: So maybe? Second question: Where do you think you’ll go when you die?MORGAN: Well that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I believe in life after death, what it is I do not know. And I’ll probably be wondering that until I find out.DAN: There’s only one way to find it out.MORGAN: Right? And I hope I don’t find it out for a very long time. That will be a question that follows me through out life.DAN: Name something Jesus Christ is known for.

MORGAN: Love. Right? (laughs) My family is Catholic but I wasn’t raised Catholic, I wasn’t raised in the church but I did have a huge spiritual upbringing. What I was taught, from my mother and my father was that Jesus Christ and Christianity is based on love. And no one can deny that’s a great idea. DAN: Amen. Number four, name something that the Christian people are known for.MORGAN: Politics. I would say, especially in this country, politics. DAN: Give me an example of some of the things you’ve seen flying around in the media or in conversations.MORGAN: Our country is kind of a conundrum because it’s built on Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, it’s the Land of the Free and yet we were founded by a puritan society. But I think the way things are being portrayed today it makes religion feel more political than anything else.

DAN: It feels like today complicated issues are being boiled down to their simplest form so it’s easier for me to shout what I think at you. It feels like we’ve lost the ability to have a conversation.MORGAN: I would agree, I would definitely agree with that and I think it’s very sad. I think it’s a sick turn this country has taken and, frankly, I’m worried about it. I feel if we don’t start getting it together and start listening to each other then I don’t like the road we’re taking and I would hate for my children to have to grow up in a country where all we have is walls built up, and rights and wrongs, and no middle ground. You have lots of abortions and Roe versus Wade which is a big deal right now, you have evolution on your suit and “Inherit the Wind” is going up down the street … we’ve come so far but we’ve taken baby steps to do it and right now we’re stagnating. But I think they’ll be a push. I have faith in my generation. Yes! DAN: Is there a bumper sticker that jumps out to you?MORGAN: Oh, yeah, this one cracked me up, “The Agnostic Dyslexic Insomniac Who Lies Awake at Night Wondering if there really is a Dog.” That’s funny.

To me the division of America, this separateness, isn't getting any of us anywhere. And both sides are making the same mistake, they think the so-called Culture War is a winnable war. Some think, eventually, one side will win out over the other.

I don’t see it that way. I’m concerned that calling it a Culture War presumes a few things, like, if it’s a war there is an enemy. This kind of adversarial posture serves to further entrench us in our own positions. The sad fact is our country is polarized because we like it. It so much simpler to pretend the world is black and white. An “Us versus Them” attitude is just simpler than critical self-reflection and allows us to blame the Other. 

It’s funny because I see bumper stickers as a symptom of the disease. A bumper sticker is, quite possibly, the weakest, most strident form of communication possible — because of its one-way nature. In this information age, communication styles are more influential than ever. I’ve identified four primary ways that have, seemingly, become the accepted ways we communicate our ideas, both through the media and in person.Myopia — our communication conveys our point of view exclusively. While our facts may be accurate, we lack context and ultimately, understanding by ignoring any information that doesn’t put forward our agenda.Hyperbole — our communication again conveys our point of view, but we exaggerate the facts and distort the available information to create an intellectually dishonest, and possibly, more persuasive case for our agenda.Hysteria — our communication conveys our point of view in an emotional and aggressive manner based primarily on our feelings, what we want to be true and our blind desire to be right and see our agenda come to fruition.

Truth — our communication conveys as balanced a review of the facts as possible, including the weaknesses to our position and the strengths of the Other’s position. The goal of this communication is the illumination of reality and, in this case, our agenda considers the wellbeing of all people, not just those who agree with me. It’s a tough to fit this on a bumper sticker.

Excerpted from “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” by Dan Merchant © 2008 Dan Merchant. Reprinted with permission from Thomas Nelson Publishers. All rights reserved.