Ignorance of Christianity Also Means Cultural Ignorance

Dr. John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Monday, January 18, 2010

Ignorance of Christianity Also Means Cultural Ignorance

January 18, 2010

Ignorance allows certainty, but punishes with narrowness. Ignorance grants ease of mind, but produces costly errors.

No place is this more evident in American culture than in those ignorant of Christianity. They think they know what Christians believe, but do not. They cheerfully dismiss with almost no thought serious truth claims made by religious thinkers. They revel in the writings of religious know-nothings who reinforce a smug and complacent set of stereotypes.

Like racists in the Old South, they look for confirmation of their opinions and avoid anyone who would challenge them. They know the names of fallen or foolish television evangelists, but not the works of serious thinkers like USC philosopher Dallas Willard.

I have met college-educated Americans who could not recognize the Biblical language or Christian arguments in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. They knew so little about the Faith of the vast majority of Americans who have ever lived, that when Abraham Lincoln spoke of a "house divided" in yet another speech, they did not recognize the Biblical reference.

I know students who are given copies of John Locke's political writings that have most of the Biblical arguments or religious language carefully removed. They don't know he was a Christian apologist. He was one of the chief intellectual sources used to defend the American Revolution and form our new government and so he must be secular. It is as if we hope that John Locke were really David Hume!

The recent tempest over Sarah Palin saying she felt God had called her to run for office and Britt Hume having the temerity to say that Christianity could help Tiger Woods is a great example. Most Americans are not disturbed, but more insular worlds such as education or mainstream media, are consumed with horror.

Like segregationists shocked to discover that not all their neighbors of color are happy being bearers of wood and carriers of water, the religiously ignorant man cries, "Who are these people?"

They are millions of your neighbors, some saints and some cads, some smart and some ignorant. They are Christians.

Sarah Palin and Britt Hume think Christianity is true, not just a cheerful private opinion. This may be wrong, quite wrong, but it is not obviously wrong. Alvin Plantinga, Notre Dame philosopher, agrees; along with Arizona Cardinal's quarterback Kurt Warner, and a billion other people on the earth.

The vast numbers don't prove Christianity is right, but it shouldn't strike us as odd when one member of the billion strong cohort believers happens to express their belief in public. It might be a good idea if more of non-Christians knew why philosophers, quarterbacks, plumbers, and priests all think that Jesus should run your life.

We separate church and state-not church and life. Christians think their belief system is correct and it would be weird if they didn't make this obvious by their behavior and talk.

There are so many millions of believers in the United States that it is a sign of their manners that religion does not saturate even more of American life.

Religious education for those outside of a religion in this nation is a joke. Where it exists, it consists of dry descriptions and believers are treated as exotic objects of study. This is despite the fact the majority of Americans and human beings in the world have these beliefs.

Students aren't taught why people (in fact as much as one out of every six living human beings), would choose to be Christian. They don't even know most Christians are in the "third world," and that the faith is booming in China.

This education should not be limited to Christianity, of course. I don't think Islam is generally right, but at least I should know why some of my smart friends think it is. Any educated person should read the best advocates for the world's great faiths. All of us should take a hard look at the writings of those who think we can live without faith.

When it comes to religion, I fear that a good-hearted ignorance prevails in many newsrooms. Reporters don't know what they don't know and so repeat errors.

Mistakes or stereotypes about Evangelical Christianity actually benefit a small group of Evangelicals. There are a few "house" Evangelicals who are known to the media who are interviewed often, partly because they fit the stereotypes. A small group of "post-Evangelicals" also find that the media stereotypes reinforce their personal decision to leave the subculture.

Every Evangelical intellectual knows many non-Evangelical intellectuals, but few non-Evangelicals in media know an Evangelical. It might be better to say that they don't know they know any Evangelicals. Given their numbers in the population, they almost certainly do, but these devout Christians have learned to hide their views in order to blend into the background.

It is no fun to be in a room where everyone assumes a particular view and you do not hold it. Only the very brave, the very wise, or fools rush to expose their minority opinions. Few of us are brave or wise and fools simply confirm the stereotypes. The rest of the very religious keep quiet and so nobody learns.

This is particularly true when it comes to language. Every region and community has their own dialectic in the United States, but reporters who rightly would feel ashamed to make linguistic errors in a foreign land have no problem with not learning the "home language" of minority groups, especially religious minority groups in America. This is less true of groups that are thought "exotic" like the Amish or the Greek Orthodox, but Evangelicals look like regular Americans. Too often their way of speaking is thought of as just like everybody else, but with some religious jargon added.

This is quite wrong. Evangelicals are the product of a unique and interesting (though not perfect!) sub-culture that shapes the way they use words and phrases. They are steeped in particular books, music, art, and films and this sub-culture cannot rapidly be mastered. Nor are the minority who leave the sub-culture the best interpreters of it . . . anymore than the best way to know another land is to talk to the people who wanted to leave it.

Imagine trusting a travel book written by someone who said, "I really hated China and loath Chinese folk ways and here are what they are all about!"

The uproar over Palin recently is a good example.

Sarah Palin has said unfortunate things, but saying she thinks God wanted her to run for vice-president likely isn't one. In the context of her culture, it is most likely an expression of humility and not of weird pride.

Palin might possibly have meant that she knew God wanted her to be vice-president. If so, then she was not only factually wrong (she lost), but also theologically wrong. As Saint Augustine points out in his City of God, we cannot know such things for sure and people who say so are fools.

Instead, Palin was probably using Evangelical shorthand for having spiritual peace about her decision. She did not think it wrong to run and felt God's hand on her life. It is an expression of humility ("vice-presidential candidate only by the grace of God") and not of pride. How do I know this is probably what she meant? I know because I have hundreds of Evangelical friends and this is how they talk and what they mean.

To give another example, I know in certain parts of the country that if an older woman begins a sentence, "Bless his heart, but . . . " she is about to personally criticize this man's behavior, but wants to be charitable about it. She thinks he may mean well, but has done something that makes him a jerk.

Americans should know about all the world's faiths, but should focus great care on Christianity. Why should Americans know more about Christianity than any faith?

First, Christianity is the dominant religious idea in America. It would be shame if we didn't understand it.

Second, Christianity has always been the dominant religious idea in America. You cannot understand historical documents, art, or culture without it. Good luck reading Uncle Tom's Cabin with comprehension if you don't understand Christian forms of abolitionism.

Third, Christianity is the largest religion in the world and one of the fastest growing. Modern South Korea is impossible to understand without reference to Christianity. South Africa, for good and bad, makes no sense without reference to the faith either in the past or in the future.

No person now alive will see a time where ignorance of Christianity will be desirable or possible.

Finally, as a Christian myself I must be honest and say what I have found.

People should know about Christianity because it is true. Only Christianity can unite a thoughtful, but popular culture. Only Christianity can provide a basis for high art, science, and philosophy simultaneously. Only Christianity can produce liberty for the individual and an ordered society.

Ignorance of the truth may make a man happy for a bit, but will lead to cultural stagnation and personal damnation. Many of us can testify that we have failed Jesus, but that He has never failed us.

If we are wrong, we hope to see it, but Christians, after centuries of thought, still think Jesus should rule our lives. To deny this knowledge or to hide it would be intellectually dishonest, cowardly, and wrong.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.