The Orlando “Project”

So yesterday at the regular house church meeting some friends of one of the group members came in to talk about The Jesus Film Project (click the link to learn all about it).Basically, the idea of what I’ll hereafter affectionately refer to as “the Project” is to "preach the gospel to all nations" by way of the "Jesus film," which was produced in 1979 and is billed as "a two-hour docudrama about the life of Christ based on the Gospel of Luke." They have apparently shown this film in nearly every corner of the globe, or at least that’s the goal, and not only do they show the film all over the world, including in many places that otherwise have little contact with "Modern" society, but when they arrive somewhere they go to the trouble to translate the dialogue into that local tongue, often by using native speakers. To date, they’ve translated the film into approximately 1,000 languages and they say that "As a result, more than 200 million people have indicated decisions to accept Christ as their personal Savior and Lord." This is clearly a very ambitious project that is spearheaded by well-intentioned and no doubt very nice and hard-working folks. Still, if you haven’t guessed already, I have some deep concerns about it all.

The folks who came to speak to us are a married couple who feel called to serve God by joining the staff of  “the Project”- now headquartered on the “campus” of Campus Crusade for Christ, International. They gave a fine presentation, and I trust that they themselves are fine, well-meaning folks. So whatever I say below should be understood to be about the "big picture" of Modern American/Western Evangelicalism and major organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, which in 2005 had a nearly half a billion dollar budget, including a paid CEO who makes over $70,000 per year.  I don’t mean to say anything at all disparaging about those well-meaning folks who genuinely believe that working under the auspices of such an organization is the best way to serve God. So, moving on to my concerns- anyone who truly knows me well may be able to guess that I struggle with the notion of “the Project” itself. Some of this, of course, has to do with money (though there is much more to it), and- by the way- part of the reason the couple came to talk to the house church is because “the Project” doesn’t pay its staff members (or at least not its minions, apparently), and so they have to raise financial support.

 

In any case, for the sake of my own reflection on all this if nothing else, I want to explore some of my struggles below. “The Project” seems to me to be a classic expression of Modern American (Western) Evangelicalism, and so can be characterized in the following ways:

  • It is based in "Decision Theology," which for the purposes of this discussion I will define as assuming that a very strict (clearly-defined, hard and fast, rigid) conversion experience is necessary to bring one into right relationship with God. While many (Modern American/Western) Evangelicals might argue the following point, my experience growing up in this culture and as someone who is still connected to it to this day is such that it seems to me that, at least when it comes to "missions," all the focus is placed on leading the masses to having this “conversion experience” to the (near) exclusion of everything else. While some rightly say that there is an effort put forth to make sure that some sort of follow-up occurs- like connecting the newly converted to a local congregation, etc.- this follow-up is so marginalized in the bigger scheme of “winning people to Christ” that it might as well not occur- and in some (perhaps many) cases it doesn’t. “Decision Theology” itself is troublesome to me for several reasons:
    • As I’ve alluded to before, it assumes that being in right relationship with Jesus is merely about lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about God, humanity, the world, the Bible, etc. This process is rational, logical, and born of the Enlightenment. In this view, salvation is wrapped up in having the right information and making the best informed choice, though with the all-important caveat that there is only one “correct” choice, and the consequence of getting it wrong is eternal damnation. Moreover, according to at least one interpretation, decision theology makes humanity the primary actor in the drama of salvation. What matters most is what I do, not what God does. According to this view, what God does is almost an afterthought to the all-important decision that I’ve already made. To borrow a Bush-ism, in decision theology "I’m the decider." I consider this to be at the very least wrong-headed, though perhaps worse.
    • Using the “cart-before-the-horse” analogy, “decision theology” gets the horse part right, but then seems to forget the cart and the driver and leaves them all with nowhere to go. So it’s right about putting the metaphorical horse first- that is, it emphasizes the hope that folks come into right relationship with God, but it forgets the cart (everything that should rightly follow from a right relationship with God- like a life of discipleship lived in community) and the driver (God- whose “job” for the sake of this analogy is to orchestrate everything and who rightly should be the star of the show). Likewise, it “leaves them all with nowhere to go” in that it seems to reduce life with God to little more than “fire insurance” (you get to avoid hell now), forgetting the mission of God that we are to be participants in helping to realize right now. Or to use the well-known Scriptural idea- salvation is about being “born again.” However, playing with this idea a bit (and echoing Debbie Blue, whom I first heard express this), who does the work of being born? The child? Or the mom? Of course the mom does; in other words, God does all the work. Furthermore (and in this I echo my friend Jared Coleman, whom I believe expressed this idea the other day), what’s the point of birth? It’s not just about the birth itself, right? No! You want to see that child learn and grow and mature into his or her fullness.
  • So, as far as I can tell, “the Project” is about getting people (and they actually use this language) to make a decision for Christ– and little else. To be fair, the folks who spoke to us yesterday did again allude to there being some efforts at follow-up when they show the film to an indigenous people group somewhere- depending on cultural sensitivities/openness- but the vast majority of the resources committed to this effort and the overall focus of “the Project” very much appear to be centered solely on conversion. As is usually the case in (Modern American/Western) Evangelicalism, there is a great emphasis placed on fulfilling the “Great Commission” to preach the gospel to all nations, and I don’t mean to disparage this. However, I do mean to convey that the gospel being preached is an incomplete one at best. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said: "The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial." Or, to take Jesus “literally” (he he), his own characterization of the ministry God sent him to accomplish is filled with language from the prophet relating to “saving” the whole person: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."  So then, I say that if we are to preach, let us preach the whole Gospel- and let us do so primarily with our lives.
  • This leads to another, related concern. The whole “project” is born of socioeconomic privilege/power and is so mired in it that I doubt it can be separated from the “gospel” being preached. To borrow another phrase- whose gospel is it, anyway? And what is the content of this gospel? Is it really “good news?” When “rich Christians” (i.e. the kind who can afford to make movies) go to help people that aren’t rich- like most of the world– too often the “help” serves only to perpetuate the system that keeps them rich and most of the world poor. I would argue that the “project” is likely no different. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some well-meaning Christians attached to the “project” who might show up in an African village, for example, to do any translating that was necessary and then show the film. While there, I’m sure (I hope?!!!) that some of them would at least notice the malnutrition, the malaria, the violence, etc. and do what they can to help, but this is not why they would have come in the first place. While relieving such suffering might have been the stated purpose of Jesus’ ministry, it isn’t necessarily the stated purpose of "the Project" and other endeavors like it. No, by preaching a “gospel” of conversion that focuses on a better life in the hereafter, the troubling conditions of today can be glossed over/ignored by those in power while “encouraging” those who suffer to simply wait for something better when they’re dead. All the while, scant attention is paid to the fact that, as Gandhi said, “(The) Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed," and of course the only way that some can be greedy while others are needy is through the use of economic and military power, and I hope I don’t need to spell out any further who gets implicated in this regard. A related problem is that- especially when rich Western Christians show up in the disadvantaged world bringing the magic of their technology (wealth) and seek to convert the “natives”- this simply reeks of colonialism or, better said, cultural imperialism and the all the horrors committed as a result. In fact, oppression perpetrated by Empire under the guise of Christianity goes back much further than colonial days, and it may be no accident that the “project” is one of the many endeavors of Campus Crusade for Christ (which my other friend Tony rightly took offense at yesterday). Echoing Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase that the “medium is the message” (thanks for the source, Jared)- which likely has bearing on the current discussion- I would also express my fear that there is an extent to which the messenger is the message too (so in Jesus’ case, that’s a good thing, but in the case of the rich Western (largely white, I’m sure) “missionaries” of the “project,” I’m not so sure). This, of course, immediately brings me back to Duane Crabbs’ favorite Aboriginal quote, which goes something like, "If you’ve come to save me, don’t bother, but if you’ve come because you believe that your salvation is bound up in mine, then let us work together." By the way, speaking of Campus Crusade for Christ (and wealth)- have you seen their headquarters (in Orlando, of all places)? Like so many structures built by “Christ-“ians these days, the money that must have gone into the building alone is troublesome, even absurd in light of the model of Jesus and too many Scriptural passages to count.

 

Okay, I’m done for now….

…..except for this (speaking of imperialism- cultural or otherwise):


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