I was still quite young when I first heard there were three things you shouldn't talk about at a social gathering: sex, politics, and religion. All three, my advisers pointed out, were calculated from the git-go to produce little profit and much embarrassment.
Over the last generation, of course, items one and two tended to disappear from that short list of forbidden topics. If there remained any inclination to keep them there, Bill Clinton, all by himself, almost forced their inclusion in everyday discussions.
But religion? At any serious level, it's still too hot to handle in most contexts. And even as a casual matter of reference, "religious" allusions tend to produce discomfort and unease. Sports reporters last week, for example, responded awkwardly to the frank Christian witness of the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner and his wife, truncating interview after interview as soon as the two got a little too explicit about their faith in Christ. It's easier today to talk in public about the details of a sex-change operation or what you did in the secrecy of the voting booth than to talk about where you put your ultimate trust for eternal issues.
Why? Three reasons:
The first is that we're talking about something desperately important. Sex and politics, of course, are also significant in people's lives-which is why we still have to be more careful with those subjects than we are in discussions about cars, gardens, or music. But issues of faith, by most people's perceptions, affect more than the here and now. If something comes after this life (and most people have that sense) then almost by definition, you can't afford to be wrong about it. Get close to such topics, and you're on thin ice.
On the one hand, the very fact that the stakes are so high ought perhaps to make us bold. We can't just wind up a discussion about faith issues by throwing up our hands and saying, "Well, whatever," as if trying to decide which restaurant in town serves the best Mexican food. But precisely because the answers matter so profoundly, too many conclude it's maybe better not to raise the questions in the first place-or at least not in public. For Christians, of course, it's the very life-and-death nature of what we believe that forces us to bring up the subject anyway. All this is why, as Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson puts it, outsiders (and even some insiders who should know better) tend to confuse Christian evangelism with religious hatred and intolerance.
A second reason people hesitate to talk in public about so-called religious issues is that most folks have been persuaded that religious conclusions are unprovable in any case-and therefore best avoided. The common wisdom suggests that scientists talk about verifiable facts, while theologians talk only about other-worldly opinions. So since none of it is certifiable, maybe it's better to keep such discussions out of public view. In any case, when it's only your opinion over against mine, how could we ever resolve such matters? The philosophic arbitrariness of such thinking-excluding "religion," for example, while welcoming psychology or even music-never seems to faze folks much. To claim to know the truth in a "religious" area in our culture these days is a sure sign of fanaticism.
But a third reason for people's reluctance to talk about issues of the spirit may also, embarrassingly, have something to do with how we go about encouraging them to do so. If people are going to find the good news of Jesus' gospel offensive, we need to be sure it's the content of that gospel that offends-and not some trappings we've attached to it.
Those trappings sometimes involve vocabulary. Terms that have been near the heart and soul of evangelicalism over the last century-words like "saved" and "conversion" and "rapture"-have too often been grabbed from a couple of isolated references in the Bible (if they're there at all) and enlisted for heavy-duty usage in our own time. To the extent that they make God's people sound arrogantly and pompously exclusive, they also discourage productive discussion with those who don't know how to weave them into a normal conversation. A little more emphasis on "love," "joy," "peace," and "mercy" might make us seem a lot less foreboding.
The trappings are sometimes theological. If liberalism's propensity has sometimes been to diminish what God has said, fundamentalism's bad habit (from the time of the Pharisees until now) has always been to add to what He has said. God says no to both tendencies. The Bible itself is a big enough stumbling block for most folks. Why add more hurdles?
Ultimately, though, the trappings have to do with our own self-consciousness. Those of us who are Christians tend to focus way too much on how we come across to the outside world-and way too little on just being God's rescued people. If we could more easily assume the role of one group of beggars telling other beggars where we found bread, a lot of the conversational hang-ups would soon go away. Difficult discussions about religion will seem a little less impossible.