Parasitic Evangelism (The Seven Habits of Highly Annoying Christians Part 2)

Our second highly annoying habit is one that belongs almost exclusively to evangelicals. I don’t really know who thought up the idea of parody t-shirts but they should be subject to some serious church discipline. I really seriously defy anyone to look at this list of the worst Christian t-shirts and tell me how they are more effective at spreading the Gospel than simply having a conversation with someone about their understanding of Jesus. Maybe (and its a “big” maybe) there is someone who saw someone sporting what, from a distance, looked like a a cool Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt and thought, “That’s a cool shirt. I need some cargo shorts” but then when drawing closer noticed the “ABreadcrumb and Fish” and immediately thought, “Whoa. Okay. Maybe I should go read that story about the loaves and the fishes. In fact maybe I should talk to that guy about Jesus.” It is possible, but not likely. Making a parody of pop-culture does not invite spiritual discussion very often. I call this parody but its doesn’t really even rise to the level of parody since parody is “making fun” of culture and if its to prove a more important point we call it satire. But these shirts aren’t even that. They don’t lampoon popular culture in order to criticize it. It is more like being a parasite on the pop-culture in order to convey a message that can stand on its own.

But set aside the “cranky-old-curmudgeon-shouting-from-his-lawn” for a moment and I hope you will see that the Christian t-shirt industry belies a deeper problem. Evangelicals are cultural parasites when it comes to engaging the world on behalf of Christ. As Petra sang so long ago, we are pilgrims. We are strangers and ever since the first utterance of the great commission, we are envoys and ambassadors.

When I was growing up I was part of a group called Royal Ambassadors. I describe it now as Boy Scouts for Baptists. We did all the stuff boy scouts do (hiking, camping, rope-tying) but we also memorized a lot of scripture and talked about what it means to be “an Ambassador” The opposite of an ambassador is a parasite. Ambassadors give greeting from a different country. They facilitate citizenship from their host country to their home country and they provide a haven for resident aliens far from home. Parasites live off the their host.  They have “evolved” to subsist off of the resources the host provides. Their existence is determined by their hosts habits, ecology, and life cycle. Christian t-shirts are not the problem. Cultural parasitism is. It is perhaps a tired observation made long ago by Francis Schaffer and echoed by Chuck Colson, but Christians used to make culture not parody it. Michaelangelo did not copy he created.  George Manly Hopkins did not parody, he made poetry. Lewis did not lampoon as much as he lambasted the carnal nature.

There is a verse that is relevant here: Romans 12:1-2

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Most of us have heard the Phillips translation of verse 2: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” However we usually take that to mean don’t look and act like a secular world. But what if being a cultural parasite is just as much “being conformed to the world” as indulging in pop music, R-rated movies, and World of Warcraft?

This is not a call to disengage from the world in an effort to be in world but not of it. Ambassadors cannot afford to simply hold up in the embassy for fear of contamination. So don’t go burning that Katy Perry album merely to prevent spiritual contamination. (Musical contamination perhaps . . . ) Ambassadors cannot afford to lose touch with their hosts. However, we should be heralds of our home culture not imitators of our hosts. However, this is much harder than being a parasite. We have understand and celebrate just what the differences in our worldview and our hosts. Its always risky. Ever Ambassador in a hostile host country knows that there will be those who pour their hate on the ambassadors. When we make those differences clear, no matter how kindly we do it, as the US ambassador  Chris Stevens experienced,  we may very well suffer and suffer dearly. But its still better than being a parasite.


Parasitic Evangelism (The Seven Habits of Highly Annoying Christians Part 2) — 4 Comments

  1. Jonathan:

    While you make some good points, I think you are discounting something: Parody is an art form. Some people may view it as the lowest form of art, but it’s been around since at least the time of ancient Greece, and there’s a reason why Saturday Night Live, Mad Magazine, and “Weird Al” Yankovic are all still around. People like parody, and they can relate to it.

    I think parody is a basic part of human nature, and most art itself is derivative by nature. I doubt there are many Americans who haven’t made their own parody of a popular song or commercial at some point in their lives. Some of the first parodies I ever heard in my life were written ABOUT me (by school bullies), not BY me.

    Like many other kids at the time, I read Mad and Cracked Magazine and loved Wacky Packages stickers (spoofing popular products) and novelty songs. When I was in high school I continued with Saturday Night Live, SC-TV, and comedy records which included plenty of parodies. And in college I read National Lampoon.

    All the while, throughout my childhood, I was drawing parody cartoons and writing parody songs (as many other kids do). So, when I became a born-again Christian after college, it was a natural extension of my artistic proclivities to do parody. I would imagine that some of the t-shirt designers you are criticizing had similar experiences.

    I see plenty of other parody shirts and bumper stickers that are not designed by Christians. Some of them I find funny and some not so funny. Same thing goes for Christian parody. In fact, as I am typing this, I can hear a commercial in the background on TV that is an extremely lame parody of Footloose — they didn’t even bother to make the words rhyme with the original.

    I’ll say this, though: There are plenty of political parodies put out there on both sides of the fence. I may not agree with the political position of a particular parody, but if it’s done well, I can still appreciate it. And it may change my opinion about the person displaying that sticker or shirt. I might say to myself, “Well, I guess they have a better sense of humor than I thought.”

    There are too many people out there who think that Christians don’t have a sense of humor. If a parody shirt, song or bumper sticker is done well, it can dispel that myth while simultaneously conveying a Bible truth. I know from experience. We’ve seen that happen countless times in the past 20 years in ApologetiX (That Christian Parody Band). I don’t expect everybody to like or even understand what we do, but that doesn’t change its validity if it’s done with the Lord’s leading.

  2. In response to this: “Making a parody of pop-culture does not invite spiritual discussion very often.”

    Statistics? Where are you getting your statistics? I assume you are an educated man who is a good critical thinker and can provide evidence beyond personal opinion and anecdotes. Please post your source for the statistics in your research.

    Bottom line (since this is probably only an opinion article), a gimmick that works for some and their circles may not work for others in THEIR circles. I don’t wear parody t-shirts, but the t-shirts I have worn HAVE sparked conversations & allowed me an “in” to present the Gospel.

  3. BTW, I hope my last comment wasn’t abrasive. I think many evangelical attempts at being hip are just that….evangelicals saying, “see?? we can be cool too!” That’s wrong and, as you say it, it’s parasitic.

  4. I know from experience. We’ve seen that happen countless times in the past 20 years in ApologetiX (That Christian Parody Band). I don’t expect everybody to like or even understand what we do, but that doesn’t change its validity if it’s done with the Lord’s leading.

    Am I correct in assuming you are a member of Apologetix? Its ironic you mention the band since I was thinking about them as I wrote. I will certainly agree with you that Parody is an art form. After all, without parody we wouldn’t have some great comedy. I attempted to make two distinctions. First, I actually hedged my argument by saying that I thought the t-shirts didn’t really amount to even parody. Since they are not emulating with respect or satirizing. Rather they are doing something wholly superfluous and kind of disingenuous. I admire Apologetix. I have never been to a concert and so I don’t know if the Gospel is shared in a ministry forum. But I will ask if you think the parody itself is essential to the gospel message or is it that one can make good comedic art and share the gospel? I would suggest the value of what Apologetix does might be the latter. Furthermore, I think Apologetix conveys the comedic aspect from the outset. Don’t take us too seriously, have some fun and enjoy these great melodies. However, I don’t see the same with the T-shirts. Regardless, my overall plea was not for the eradication of comedy and parody in Christian culture but rather that we not lose what is important about displaying the culture of our home country. If we have some Christian parody bands then I’m all for it. Why should the devil have all the good comedy. However if every Christian in Nashville is trying to sound like either Beyonce or Three Doors Down, then something is amiss as I think Charlie Peacock argued in his Christian Music at the Crossroads book. Thank you for you thoughts. I look forward to you help in clarifying my ideas.

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