Did you know that in 1988 evangelicals, and especially Southern Baptists (*hangs head in shame*), encouraged folks to stop buying VHS tapes of the lovable E.T.? If you’re racking your brain, as I was, trying to figure out what was so offensive about E.T., you can stop now. The problem wasn’t with the little alien, the problem was with the Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ.
The National Association of Evangelicals joined together to campaign and encourage Christians to not buy the beloved family film as a show of displeasure over the other MCA/Universal film. Their goal was to significantly impact the profits of E.T., the film which MCA would expect Christians to watch, so that it would garner their attention and voice their displeasure in The Last Temptation of Christ.
Living and Dying by the Boycott
It didn’t work. And I hadn’t even heard of this boycott until a couple weeks ago when I found a gem of a book (Power Religion) tucked away in my library. It’s a compilation of articles written in the late ’80s and early ’90s by prominent Christian leaders. The book is unified around the theme of evangelicals selling out for the sake of power. I find it incredibly intriguing because of its date of composition. Reading it 30 years later is eye-opening. And I wish we would have listened. Consider this from Kenneth A. Myers:
If you live by the boycott, you may die by the boycott. If you present yourself merely as one of many patches in the pluralist American crazy quilt, you must behave with the same decorum you require of others. If you try to use coercive economic means to prevent a false Messiah from being presented in 70 millimeter Dolby stereo, then you should not expect the economic freedom to present the true Messiah in cinematic glory, if that presentation is as offensive to some fellow citizens as Scorsese’s presentation is to you. (46)
The Movement Mentality
Thankfully we’ve moved on a bit from boycotting things. But I’m not convinced that we’ve learned our lesson about power politics. If my social media feed is any indication we’re still in the midst of a culture war. And the fear-mongering is perhaps even more pronounced than it was when Myers originally wrote this article. We don’t boycott E.T. anymore. We shame, dismiss and ultimately destroy the enemy—all in the name of Jesus, of course. I think we evangelicals have wised up a bit and changed our strategy. But we haven’t yet abandoned our hope in a movement in favor of a King and His Kingdom. We still have plenty of chips in on the evangelical counter-culture movement. Again I turn to Myers, and tell me this doesn’t sound just like your social media feed:
Movements succeed by maintaining solidarity and are not friendly to reflective attention to nuance, to the statement of exceptions to generalities, or to criticism within the ranks. Instead of judging one’s orthodoxy by his or her understanding of the Person and work of Christ (theology), the movement mentality judges orthodoxy by one’s position on a particular policy or ideological principle. (47)
God help us. This is far too true. And I see this deeply within the movement that I find myself within. We’ve splintered over social justice issues. And we now measure our brothers and sisters based upon which particular camp they fall into. “Are you part of my movement?” we ask. Please, tell me this hasn’t all just been about power!
Myers continues in the chapter to show how a move away from theology to morality and then to mere ideology leads to an emptiness. He asks a probing question, “What is to prevent the evangelical movement from becoming as theologically vacant as the liberalism it once denounced?” Given the recent State of Theology, perhaps we should listen to what Myers warned against so many years ago. Yes, we evangelicals are theologically vacant.
A Path Forward?
Does this mean we’ve lost the cultural war? If we’ve lost the gospel while trying to prevent Christendom does it mean that we lost the battle decades ago? Did we fight for the wrong thing and in doing so let the main thing slip through our fingers? Perhaps. But Jesus doesn’t let his sheep go so easily. We’re broken. We have egg on our face. Maybe evangelicalism is meant to burn to the ground. But the evangel isn’t. The good news will always have a seat at the table, even if it isn’t invited. Because the gospel is always true and it doesn’t bow to any king. It’ll remain.
So what’s the path forward? It certainly isn’t boycotting E.T. nor in changing our strategies. We won’t gain much by taking white-out over our placards and replacing them with more modern quips and zingers. The path forward is likely the slow-plodding path of faithful discipleship. Bold proclamation that isn’t beholden to a party or an ideology, but simply captivated by the never-changing truth of King Jesus.
Maybe our answer should be to drop the petitions and put up Bible study sign-up sheets.
This article originally appeared here.