I remember the first time that I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child. I, of course, fell in love with the adventure, while missing much of the scathing social rebuke that was featured in the character development. It was not until much later that this story was revealed in to me in a new light. I saw the slave-owning Miss Watson, the Grangerfords, and Shepherdsons, who listen to a sermon about brotherly love with their rifles between their legs in church, or Mr. Phelps, who prayed with Jim daily while locking him up to return him to slavery. The book was indicative of Mr. Twain’s (Samuel Clemens’) observations (earned or unearned) about the role of religion in society and the merits of religious people. This trend has continued up until current expressions of media.
I cringe every time a “Christian” character is revealed in a film or novel. The stereotypes are vicious and simple, but I think they can be very valuable in that they show us what the culture is trying to pigeon-hole Christians as. They become, in their rude characterizations, almost an anthropological study on believers in the modern age.
The Simple Christian and The Hypocritical Christian
The most common renditions tend to fall into two different characters. The first is “the simple Christian.” These are featured in stories as comedic foils or main antagonists, but they are notable for their devout stated beliefs that then lack any substance whatsoever. These individuals speak with conviction about who is wrong and where everyone is going but then fail in explaining even the most basic questions about God and His implementation of justice. They are laughable in their ignorance and meant to engender scorn at their simple-minded ways.
The second type of character is perhaps the most common: “the hypocritical Christian. This individual speaks from a pulpit or quotes verses, while doing all the things that they are denouncing. I was recently speaking with one of my young adults, and they were referencing some new show that had come out with a character that fits this bill to the T. The character preached morals and repentance, while abusing others and earning vast quantities of money. I do not blame Hollywood for these two renditions—you might notice Twain was making similar observations 140 years ago. The lack of creativity might disturb you, but the fact that this stereotype persists is a stark admonishment for us now as leaders of the upcoming generation of believers.
Why We Must be Known by Our Love
The task for us is to use these cultural references to plan out what we want to convey and how we should be teaching. We know, as believers, that the Church (the body of Christ) holds in it amazing intellects. There are teachers, professors, engineers, doctors, and everything in between represented in our local congregations. I denounce “the simple Christian” every time I see or read about it in mainstream society. The takeaway needs to be (as was written long ago) to “present yourself to God as one approved … who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NIV), “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6), or “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, ESV). A state of preparedness that is confident of what we believe and yet borders on gentleness and respect—that is a character that will never make it into a Hollywood produced movie. We need to make sure we facilitate an atmosphere where questions are fostered and pursued so that answers are forthcoming and understanding is deepened. Let your young adults see you take on questions and observe the way you move towards answers.
“The hypocritical Christian” is painful. I guess those who continue to strum this one guitar string are willing to overlook the millions of dollars donated by Christians worldwide, the hundreds of organizations that exist to serve and love in needy areas that are run through Jesus’ body (the Church), or the uncountable hours sacrificed by believers every year to help during times of crisis or emergency. I get it—that is a lot less interesting then a familiar stereotype. However, I believe we can combat this in one simple way: we must be people entirely known for our love. In no way do we compromise our truth or water down our approaches, but we have to raise up the next generation of young adults who “in humility value others above (themselves)” (Philippians 2:3, NIV). Let’s help young adults seek to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10, ESV). We, as ministers, should exemplify how to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12, NIV) so that those that follow us will be described the same way. There is a reason Paul said that love is the greatest attribute we can possess (1 Corinthians 13:13), and likewise Jesus said we would be known as His disciples by our love (John 13:35). Too many times, we fear that loving someone will lessen our ability to speak truth into their lives. My father did not rejoice to see me disobey his rules as a youth, but he certainly let me know when I was going in the wrong direction. This correction, when taken in conjunction with his other and many acts of love, did not lessen my understanding of his affection, but indeed deepened it.
I pray, as we are constantly having to face a hostile society that paints Christians in harmful stereotypes, that we as leaders are striving to combat these caricatures. I pray that we are striving to develop young adults into mature believers who understand what they believe and are willing to sacrificially love others and be known for their love.
Conan Sherlin is the Baptist Collegiate Ministry Director at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. He lives in Thibodaux, Louisiana with his wife Christy and their four kids (Evie, Ada, Haddie, and Gilford). Connect with Conan via Twitter: @nsherlin10.