Are You a Victorian?

Michael Metzger

Why not?
Do you ever introduce yourself as a Victorian? If not, why not? Simple. People imagine Victorians as provincial, priggish, prudish and past tense. We’re in a post-Victorian age. If you want to launch a conversation, calling yourself a Victorian is a non-starter.
So here’s a question: Do you ever introduce yourself as a Christian? What if we live in a post-Christian age? These two questions can be misunderstood a thousand ways and properly understood one way. Rather than run to answers, consider how Albert Einstein would frame this question along with some surprising advice from Jesus.

First of all, what the heck is a “post-Christian” age? It’s a world where we talk one way on Sunday and another on Monday. That’s because, beginning in the 1800s, “the state was de-religionized, and the church was disempowered,” writes Tim Stafford.1 Friends are gracious if you keep your faith private but hold a grudge if you take it public. It’s an age when Christianity is “socially irrelevant, even if privately engaging.”2 So how would Albert Einstein suggest Christians frame their answer, given our day and age?

First, Einstein said you could not solve a problem in the framework that created it. If people already imagine Christianity as been there, done that – it’s too late to cry foul. Winston Churchill said history would be kind to him “for I shall write the history.” In the 1800s a raft of writers reframed Christianity. Men like James Joyce, William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, John Dewey and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes placed Christianity in a new frame – as ignorant, inconsequential, and intolerant. Introduce yourself as a Christian places you inside their frame. “Do not use their language,” writes George Lakoff. “Their language picks out a frame – and it won’t be the frame you want.”3

Second, Einstein said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”4 In this post-Christian age we need new metaphors or pictures to help people imagine what it means to be a Christian. Look at the homosexual movement to understand the power of imagination. Forty years ago a majority of Americans would have described homosexuality as disgusting, effeminate, or distasteful. If we heard a sermon describing homosexuality as sin, that would “fit” our imagination. Now fast-forward forty years. Many people imagine homosexuals as humorous, classy, or sharp. The idea that sharp, caring, and humorous people are an abomination to God is tough to swallow. Yet the problem isn’t information but imagination. Imagination frames information. “People think in frames. To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off.”5

Third, Einstein said the most important thing you can do is name something. I wonder if he got this from his Jewish upbringing, since Adam’s first act in shaping the world was to name the animals. Thomas Huxley reframed the religious debate in 1876 by calling himself an agnostic. Disney sets the table by describing their artists as imagineers. Kids aren’t coffee sellers at Starbucks, they’re Baristas. If you are a Christian, can you think of a way to introduce yourself that reframes the faith?

Fourth, Einstein suggested you grab the imagination by communicating in pictures, not in disseminating data. “I very rarely think in words at all,” he later told a psychologist. “A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”6 Most Christians on the other hand tend to think in words and then come up with cute “illustrations” afterward. But by then we’ve lost most of our audience.

In a post-Christian age, pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City maintains a tension that “neither forsakes the truth of Christianity nor needlessly alienates those raised to assume a plurality of religions.”7 Keller reminds me of the “men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”8 C. S. Lewis is another example. He often introduced himself as a writer of children’s stories. Lewis had no reservations about calling himself a Christian but rightly understood that stealing “past those watchful dragons” guarding against religion is more difficult when you get off on the wrong foot.9

A wise man once said, “streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way.”10 That was Jesus. William Wilberforce and his Clapham colleagues were streetwise by engaging friend and foe in “a conversation that never ended” that led to abolishing the slave trade. Yet a never-ending conversation requires getting started. Jesus and Einstein might urge you to reconsider coming out of the blocks by introducing yourself as a Christian. You run the risk of being disqualified for a false start.

———————-
1 Tim Stafford, “The Samaritan Life,” Christianity Today, February 2008, p.48
2 This quote comes from Theodore Roszak, a Professor of History at California State University, Hayward. C.f., Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), p.122
3 George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004), p.3
4 Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007), p.9
5 Lakoff, Elephant, p.17
6 Isaacson, Einstein, p.9
7 Stafford, Samaritan, p.49
8 I Chronicles 12:32 (New International Version)
99 C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What Needs to Be Said,” in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (Orlando: Harvest, 1982), p.12
10 Luke 16:8-9 (The Message)

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