OJCCC recommends you to read this story. There once existed a village, heavily populated, that was entirely self-contained within four tall wooden walls. Though the village occasionally had dealings with those outside the walls, most of the villagers themselves did not. Rather, they spent their lives simply living and communing with each other, taking solace in the consistency of their community. And they were reasonably content.
Now in this village lived a young boy who had existed within the four walls since his birth. He too, was reasonably content. Even so, one day in a fit of curiosity he climbed to the top of the wall and sat upon it to watch the comings and goings of the outside world, the people living beyond his village. He was only there a short amount of time, but found himself sitting atop it again before long. In time it became a daily habit of his to climb the wall and watch, despite the disapproving glances of his elders. Still he went, watching the world in longer and longer stretches, finding it at times utterly pointless and at times fascinating, in either case unable to break his gaze from it.
Eventually, he simply decided not to come down anymore. Day and night, damp and cold, he sat by himself in his post atop the wall. Observing, listening, guarding: the lonely sentinel.
Life below carried on without him, and often he’d hear the sounds of their feasts and celebrations beckoning him back down. But as he looked over his shoulder at them considering, he realized something strange. From a distance and up high, the lives of the villagers seemed absurd. Their celebrations were hollow, their laughter dishonest,and their daily lives seemed futile. He found he did not miss it; there was nothing there for him. So he stayed on the wall.
I am the boy, and there are many like me.
In the periphery of the American church exist a segment of people who, like the boy with his village, have found themselves very disenchanted with both the church and Christianity itself: the skeptics. It is widely acknowledged that there has been a large exit of Christians from the church in the last decade. A study of deconversion narratives indicate that the majority of these began their exodus as skeptics. While the causes of such skepticism vary, theme analyses of deconversion narratives point to two conflicts that have often been the nail in the coffin for ex-Christians (Simmons 117):
First is the belief that God is a moral monster. Hell exists. Evil is pervasive. And yet God, who is sovereign over all, still claims to be loving and benevolent. Many simply cannot come to terms with how this could be so, or how such a mass of people could find reason to worship him without being monsters themselves. One analyzed narrative recounted, “Once I began to study closely, I started noticing that ‘God’ was nothing like the being Christians project it to be. From condoning mass slaughters of Israel’s enemies to torturing Job just to fulfill his own twisted ego, the God of the bible seemed more evil than the supposed Satan? (Simmons 133). And another: “The ultimate end of my faith was the fact that I couldn’t just believe that any loving, benevolent creator would send us to hell for such minor, petty offenses? (Simmons 132).
Second is the belief that the church is impotent, hypocritical, hurtful. Rather than taking up Christ’s call to love their enemies and go to all people, they sit within their village walls, scratching their own backs and fighting amongst themselves. One deconvert described it, “I’ve seen the way [God’s] people act and the way other people act, and according to God’s peoples’ own standards, the atheists are more likely to be saved and get to Heaven (if Heaven even exists)? (Simmons 131). Certain among them propagate more hostility than love, leaving many feeling “burdened by the arrogance, racism, and hatred that came from these people? (Simmons 130).
Sitting on the wall I found myself burdened by these as well. This skepticism, unmet and rooted in such weighty concerns can be lethal to one’s spiritual life, especially mixed with doubt, forming a toxic cynicism. I have spent many nights lying awake hoping that God does not exist. While I’m not yet convinced he doesn’t, there are times when I find myself so disenchanted and disturbed by the whole ordeal that it seems to be the most freeing possibility. The absence of God would mean no more ties to the village; abandoning its absurdity would be justified. Skepticism unmet leads to cynicism. Cynicism unmet leads either to years of misery or to disengagement and deconversion.
Many of the villagers watched the boy with a wary eye, seeing his loneliness and how often he gazed at the world beyond. They invited him to climb down from his perch and rejoin the life of the village, but he could not. The boy could not abandon his post to be a part of their trivialities again. His conscience would not allow it. His sense of duty called him to watch from the wall. His sense of dignity could not bear to rejoin the absurdity of the village life.
To date, most American churches are doing little to bring the boy down from the wall or to even understand what makes the village so contemptible to him. Most often, skeptics are met with shallow answers that the church expects to satisfy them or trite statements about how Jesus and mere faith will resolve all their woes. In the worst cases, skeptics are derided and reproached for daring to question authority in the first place. Because of this, people like myself who have found themselves so disenchanted also feel isolated, stuck upon the wall, observing at a distance. They find themselves trapped between their conscience and their community.
So the boy stayed and he watched, ever contemplating when it would be that he slipped himself over the edge of the village walls, leaving the pettiness of his home behind him forever to venture into the world beyond.
If the American church ever hopes to ebb the flow of skeptics making their exodus from the church, they must find a healthy way to bring the boy down from the wall and re-incorporate him into the village life. But in doing so they cannot simply tell the boy to forget what he has seen and learned sitting up so high. They must never encourage him to crush his conscience, for that will make him even more hardened.
The church must also be willing to agree that much of what skeptics see is valuable and true.The villagers need the boy as much as the other way around. The church is in many ways ailing, and yet the members and leaders are usually slow to realize this, having become preoccupied by maintaining their standard of living. Walter Brueggemann coined this as the “official religion of optimism? (37), the intentional ignorance of certain realities that in time become impossible to see while a part of the community. The skeptics, standing at a distance from the church, belonging neither fully to the village nor to the world, are in the place to recognize such shortcomings. Marshall McLuhan makes this point in his work The Medium is the Massage, “Whoever sharpens our perceptions tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted? for he cannot go along with currents and trends.? They see and understand environments “as they really are? (88). If the church then needs the skeptics to refine its practice, and the skeptics need the church to help them re-engage with their community, the question is this: How does the village bring the boy down from the wall and engage him in the life of their community without forcing him to compromise what he has learned?
The American church, on both a local and global scale, must make room for prophetic media arts. Prophetic media is the voice of the skeptic, meeting them where they are, telling them that they are not alone, and breaking the silence to dialogue about what pains them, what they see as needing change.
For our purpose, I define prophetic media as creative media arts that fulfill one of two functions within the context of the local church and moves toward progress, healing, and change.
The first function is lament, the recognition of pain caused either by the monstrosity of God, the hurtfulness of the church, or the evil of the world we live in. Such pain is a part of life, but often comes with severe bitterness towards God. Annie Dillard, observing the long torment of a young girl, asked, “Who are we to demand explanations of God? (And what monsters of perfection should we be if we did not?)? (Holy the Firm). In the Old Testament, Job weeps for his own existence and finds himself questioning whether God has failed him. Such words and meaning have the power to break the church from it’s pacified state of hapless optimism and understand that change may be needed. “The real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not alright? (Brueggemann 11). It should be noted that lamentful media must not always be absolutely true (intense pain rarely leads to clarity of thought) but it must be absolutely honest. Only then can it penetrate the apathy of the church.
The second function of prophetic media is to call for change. The prophetic agent, after declaring that the world is not alright, makes the case for revolution within the church in its hypocrisy, in its dealings with pain or its failure to address it. It is the call to set aside petty issues and practice selflessness and self-awareness. The writings of Amos in the Old Testament are precisely such a call, criticizing the people for their self-satisfaction and crying for justice. The call for revolution cannot merely be critical, however, it must also be energizing (Brueggemann 4). Criticism without energy to push forward will only fall back into cynicism, the death of faith. But also, calling for change without direct and potent criticism will merely glance off of the veneer of optimism that pacifies the village.
Though these two functions are distinct, they are also inexplicable. Though they do not necessarily need to come from the same mouthpiece, they both need to be present in the life of the church, or they will serve neither the boy nor the village.
As the boy sat, a voice floated up to him and asked why he could not come down. When the boy explained that he could not bear to rejoin the absurdity of the village, the voice did not reply. Silence was his answer, like every other invitation. But a minute later it spoke again, agreeing that at times it did seem absurd and it asked the boy if he could help it understand why. So they conversed for a time on what the boy had seen, and when they had finished both went back to their lives. Two days later the voice was back. They spoke again, the boy mostly speaking, the voice mostly listening. And in the midst of their speaking, for the first time in months, the boy cautiously began to descend the wall.
Prophetic media recognizes the skeptic and shares in his frustration, his pain, and his concerns intently. It gives value and significance to them. It provides the platform for him to speak rather than shutting him down. The benefit also extends to the church, for it provides critical voices to make it aware of its deficiencies. Church leadership must be willing to promote the creation of prophetic media and conversation, but it must be very careful in doing so. As an institution, the church must be wary of controlling or directing the content itself, or it will become mere propaganda and unable to bring change. Rather, it should open the platform for prophetic voices to be heard and be willing to hear them uncensored. This will undoubtedly mean that there will be things spoken unfit for the ears of children, things that make stomachs churn. But the world we are born into is also unfit for children, and pain cannot be censored. Honesty must be honored, or the religion of optimism that leaves so many feeling alone will prevail. Follow ojccc.org and always stay updated about all christian news journal.
Their conversations continued, and as they did the boy spent more and more time down in the village and less on the wall. And as he did, more voices joined in to speak and to listen and to think about their life in the village and what it actually meant. The boy slowly found himself able to re-engage in the life of the village, which though still absurd in many ways, was gradually becoming more intentional. And the boy gradually found that, though he did occasionally still climb the wall to look to the outside world, he needed to less often. And although he didn’t know for certain that he would never slide down the other side and leave his community at some point, he found value in his village and felt that it was something he could invest in without completely eradicating his convictions or frustrations.
Prophetic media can be a powerful tool, a help to both skeptics and their church. But first steps are the hardest and honesty is a painful thing to exercise. To that end, let me close with my own prophetic expression: a lament that I wrote to process honestly and fully the rage I felt at the hurt of those I loved.