THE BLOG
10/30/2014 10:08 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Preaching Without Words

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Writing for the Internet, I've learned, is a bit like taking on the hecklers at the Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. The normal rules of civil dialogue do not apply. Especially if the topic is religion--any religion--you'll likely provoke a reflexive verbal blast.

Apart from the typos and bad grammar, I've come to appreciate these Internet outbursts. All too often scientists, psychologists, health workers, politicians, writers and, yes, preachers address people who already agree with them and give polite nods of encouragement. As a writer who explores matters of faith, I find it stimulating, albeit bracing, to find my words and thoughts challenged at every turn.

Consider this response to an article I wrote in The Huffington Post, which I reproduce without change or correction:

if there is a god, he sucks. no good god would allow some of the things going on around us to exist. conseqently, if the there is no god we would have no one to blame. assuming there is a god he doesn't do any of us any good at all.

I doubt I would hear such sentiments at a booksigning, yet they reflect the attitude of an increasing proportion of the population. Militant atheists pack out the lecture halls of universities, and when pollsters ask about religious affiliation one in three of the millennial generation answer "None." The United States is gradually drifting toward a post-Christian culture, although at a pace well behind most European countries, where a majority do not believe in the existence of God.

There are many reasons for this drift: a Christian history that includes the Inquisition and the Crusades, recent identification of Evangelicals and right-wing politics, disagreements over sexual ethics, religious battles with science, a disgust with internecine divisions and squabbles. Often the aversion traces back to the Christians themselves. In the novel The Second Coming one of Walker Percy's characters says about Christians, "I cannot be sure they don't have the truth. But if they have the truth, why is it the case that they are repellent precisely to the degree that they embrace and advertise the truth?... A mystery: If the good news is true, why is not one pleased to hear it?"

Walker Percy's question so intrigued me that I decided to write a book about it (published recently as Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?) In it I describe many of the things we Christians do poorly and ask whether the Christian message truly represents good news in a modern world. I also look for representatives who can still communicate effectively to a post-Christian culture. As I was writing, a friend mentioned to me, "There are three kinds of Christians that outsiders to the faith respect: pilgrims, activists, and artists. The uncommitted will listen to them far sooner than to an evangelist or apologist."

Artists
I spent some time with an unlikely spokesman for religion and the arts, a Japanese-American by the name of Makoto Fujimura. Though born in Boston and educated in the U.S., Mako became the first non-native to study in a prestigious school of painting in Japan that dates back to the 15th century. While earning a doctorate there, he learned the ancient Nihonga technique that relies on natural pigments derived from cured oyster, clam, and scallop shells and from stone-ground minerals including gold, silver, platinum, azurite and malachite. Rather than painting traditional subjects like kimonos and cherry blossoms, however, Fujimura applied the Nihonga style to his preferred medium of abstract expressionism.

Mako's paintings hang in almost every major museum in Japan and in the U.S., too, his work commands respect and high prices. He was honored with a career retrospective in Tokyo before he turned forty, and as a Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts, Fujimura served as an international ambassador for the arts. A thoughtful Christian, Fujimura was also named the 2014 recipient of the Religion and the Arts Award given annually by American Academy of Religion.

Every artist knows that for centuries the church served as a sponsor and patron. Western culture would be far more impoverished without the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Bernini, Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, Velazquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Eyck. Yet few artists today look to the church as a nurturer of art and many see it as an adversary. Mako Fujimura seeks to change that. In 1992 he founded the International Arts Movement, "a community of artists and creative catalysts wrestling with how to fully integrate our art, faith, and humanity." IAM brings together aspiring and accomplished artists in conferences and offers ongoing encouragement to artists of all media. During one of those conferences, Mako painted live on stage at Carnegie Hall as part of a collaboration with the composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra.

One thing about Mako impresses me more than his many accomplishments. In the wider artistic community he lives out his faith with grace and compassion. On September 11, 2001, Mako was residing a few blocks from Ground Zero in an area popular with artists. After the World Trade Center disaster, with many of these artists shut out of their homes and studios, Mako opened a communal studio to allow them to continue working. He called it his tea house, and dedicated it as "an oasis of collaboration by Ground Zero artists."

At that time, Mako told me, many of these artists were producing works intended to shock, most of them portraying obscenity and violence. On 9/11 reality trumped creativity: what happened in their own neighborhood was more obscene and violent by far than anything they had imagined. In the safety of Mako's studio, these artists rediscovered other values--beauty, humaneness, courage, gentleness--and their works began to reflect this new outlook. For example, one avant-garde artist who had worked to "decode gender and sexuality" made a different kind of creation, folding hundreds of white origami butterflies and arranging them in a beautiful pattern.

For six months the artists held exhibits, performances, poetry readings, and prayer gatherings in this safe place, this oasis. As Mako later commented, "our imaginative capacities carry a responsibility to heal, every bit as much as they carry a responsibility to depict angst." Art succeeds when it speaks most authentically to the human condition, and when believers do so with skill, others takes note. The Christian artist may offer consolation to a wounded planet even while awakening a desire for ultimate healing.

Activists
The theologian Miroslav Volf lived through the Balkan War of the 1990s and went on to teach at Fuller Seminary and Yale Divinity School. During his early years, then-Yugoslavia was officially atheist: Volf's father served time in a communist labor camp and Miroslav himself underwent extensive police interrogation. When communism fell, he watched as the country broke apart along religious lines and the bloody civil war began.

Volf now proposes a different model for people of faith. Leading with what we believe, he says, tends to provoke opposition--witness the tragic history of the Balkans. By emphasizing doctrine, we set ourselves apart from "the other" and may be tempted to impose our beliefs by force. Instead, guided by the Golden Rule we should concentrate on living out our beliefs, progressing from hand to heart to head. Practical acts of mercy (extending a hand) will express our love (the heart), which in turn may attract others to the source of that love (head beliefs).

I believe Volf may also have framed the best way of communicating faith. Protestants, especially those who would welcome the label evangelical, have traditionally stressed "proclaiming the word" in a direct appeal to the mind. They preach sermons, write books on apologetics, conduct city-wide evangelistic campaigns. For those alienated from the church, that approach no longer has the same drawing power. And for the truly needy, words aren't enough: "A hungry man has no ears," as one relief worker told me.

Most of my secular friends see the church as a place where like-minded people go to feel better about themselves, not a change agent that can affect all of society. That stereotype of the church stands in sharp contrast to the vision of Jesus, who said little about how believers should behave when they gather together and much about how they can affect the world around them. Jesus used these images to illustrate his kingdom: a sprinkle of yeast causing the whole loaf to rise, a pinch of salt preserving a slab of meat, the smallest seed in the garden growing into a great bush in which the birds of the air come to nest.

Two books by sociologist Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity and The Triumph of Christianity, spell out how early believers in the Roman Empire took Jesus' agenda to heart. The Christians organized relief projects for the poor and ransomed their friends from barbarian captors. Some voluntarily freed their own slaves. When plague hit, Christians tended the sick--including their nonbelieving neighbors--whereas the pagans forsook them as soon as the first symptoms appeared. When Romans abandoned their unwanted babies to exposure and wild animals, Christians organized platoons of wet nurses to keep them alive for adoption by church families.

Wherever Christianity took root, care for the vulnerable spread. To mention one example, in Europe of the Middle Ages the Benedictine order alone operated 37,000 monasteries devoted to the sick.

As a journalist, I have seen many contemporary examples of ordinary Christians who cheerfully serve the common good, a fact that gets overlooked in the media's focus on Christians and politics. I wish those who ask "What good is Christianity?" could spend time with some of the remarkable people who dedicate their lives to humble service. I have visited schools for the Dalits (Untouchables) in India where the first generation from that caste in five thousand years is obtaining a quality education. I have reported on leprosy hospitals in Asia, AIDS clinics and orphanages in Africa, and a renowned hospital for obstetric fistula sufferers in Ethiopia, all products of missionary work.

Out of the media spotlight, Christian activists have found creative ways to fight moral battles. Prison Fellowship International has shown such expertise in caring for prisoners that several governments have asked them to take over the management of entire prisons. A sister organization, International Justice Mission, tackles sexual trafficking overseas by working with local authorities. An IJM representative learns about a corrupt mayor and visits his office. "We know you are getting kickbacks from a prostitution ring. And we both know that your own laws forbid that. We want to stop the exploitation of these women, and can handle it one of two ways. We can bring in cameras and expose you to the world press. Or we can make you a hero, letting you partner with us in a public campaign to break up this ring. Your choice."

I can predict how critics of the church would respond to these examples of Christians helping to improve society. They would cite European countries like Denmark where few claim any Christian commitment and yet society seems to work admirably, yielding a high quality of life. Having visited Denmark and its equally secular Scandinavian neighbors, I would have to agree--though, to be fair, let's admit that the region was populated by warring and pillaging Vikings until Christianity came along. The gospel transforms culture by permeating it like yeast, and long after the people abandon belief they tend to live by habits of the soul. Once salted and yeasted, society is difficult to un-salt and un-yeast.

Critics should also visit countries with little or no history with Christianity and compare their care for the oppressed, their range of freedoms, their treatment of women, and their basic morality. I have traveled to places where you need to double-lock your suitcases and count your change after every transaction, where innocent prisoners rot in jails with no legal recourse, where converting to another religion--or any religion--constitutes a serious, even a capital, offense. Christianity's leavening effect is hard to ignore: nine of ten nations that Freedom House labels "free" it identifies as Christian, and the same pattern applies to nations that Transparency International ranks as least corrupt, the World Giving Index rates as generous, and the World Economic Forum cites for best gender equality.

A skeptical world judges the truth of what we say by the proof of how we live. Today's activists may be the best evangelists for they express their faith in the most persuasive way of all, by their deeds.

Pilgrims
John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim's Progress from a prison cell, and the allegory struck such a chord that for two hundred years no book except the Bible sold more copies in English. "Christian," the main character, consistently chose the wrong road and the wrong friends. Each time he fell down, though, he let God pick him up and dust him off. Like most of us, he progressed not by always making right decisions but by responding appropriately to wrong ones. The author knew grace: Bunyan titled his own spiritual biography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

In an allusion to Bunyan's allegory, the philosopher John Hick describes two travelers who take a journey together. From all appearances their lives do not seem much different since they both face the same hardships and enjoy the same pleasures. However, one traveler believes he is on the way to the Celestial City while the other sees it as a simple expedition with no real goal in mind. As a result they experience the journey very differently.

Writes Hick, "One sees the pleasures that travel brings as foretastes of the greater joy awaiting him, and its pains as being worth enduring for the sake of that final happiness. The other takes the good and the bad as they come, making the best of a journey that ultimately has no point.... The journey will prove either to have been 'Pilgrim's Progress' or 'Just one damn thing after another.'"

A pilgrim is a fellow-traveler on the spiritual journey, not a professional guide. Followers of Jesus have no claim on moral superiority; to the contrary, we turn to God only when we have recognized our moral inferiority. We come to God out of need and must constantly rely on God for help. We get sick, lose loved ones, settle for an unfulfilling job, battle temptation, hurt those we care about, make bad choices.

I have visited churches where authority figures make sweeping promises about prosperity and good health, as if faith will elevate you into a privileged class. That message may get results for a while--until reality sets in. And the approach has far less effect in a cynical post-Christian environment. Although post-Christians do not oppose a spiritual search, they will listen only to Christians who present themselves as pilgrims on the way rather than as part of a superior class who has already arrived.

As the recovery movement teaches, naked honesty and helplessness are what drive us to God. The truth, about ourselves and about our need for outside help, sets us free. We don't need to pretend that things are fine; we admit we are needy and look to God for both vision and strength. In the process of doing so, ordinary pilgrims can have far-reaching effects.

As the year 2013 came to a close, Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of such bestsellers as Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, spoke out publicly about his own rediscovery of faith. He credits a visit with a Mennonite couple in Winnipeg, Canada, who lost their 13-year-old daughter to a sexual predator. After the largest manhunt in the city's history, police officers found the teenager's body in a shed, frozen, her hands and feet bound; it took them twenty-two years to arrest and prosecute the suspected killer.

At a news conference just after the girl's funeral her father said, "We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people's lives." The mother added, "I can't say at this point I forgive this person," stressing the phrase at this point. "We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to," she added. [Afterward, Wilma Derksen became a Forgiveness Therapist, and outlines her approach in a moving TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sGmYDYTwUs.]

The response of this couple, so different from a normal response of rage and revenge, pulled Gladwell back toward his own Mennonite roots. As he told Relevant magazine, "Something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen's garden. It is one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary. Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up at the press conference and talk about the path to forgiveness."

Gladwell found other instances of ordinary Christians who acted in extraordinary ways, such as the Protestants in rural France who sheltered Jews during Nazi occupation. He adds, "Maybe we have difficulty seeing the weapons of the spirit because we don't know where to look, or because we are distracted by the louder claims of material advantage. But I've seen them now, and I will never be the same."

From each of these representatives--artists, activists, and pilgrims--I learned the truth of a dictum laid down by Francis of Assissi nine centuries ago: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."

Philip Yancey has written such bestsellers as What's So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew. Some of this material is adapted from his latest book, Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?