With a question and a hunch I took pen and notepad and bottle of water down to the Wal-Mart straddling the Philadelphia line to conduct my first-ever survey. The question: "What do you think the gospel is?" The hunch: A sizeable number of people will answer something like, "We should love one another." That, of course, is no "good news" at all but very bad news indeed: If the gospel is the Golden Rule, then all of us are damned. And if churches are leaving that impression, we're in trouble.
In the margins I noted gender, race, and approximate ages of respondents: about 90 percent black and 10 percent white, slightly more women than men, the average age in the upper 40s. Answers clustered around a few types, some confirming my theory:
"The Word of God. Look at creation. . . ."
"The gospel? Just live by it." (She runs away.)
"Oh, I don't know. And I go to Mass every Sunday. To me it would be the sermon."
"Peace, love, loving everybody."
"All depends on your belief."
"Right now I'm reading Revelation . . . all about wars. . . . (I interrupt to set him on track.) The gospel? I'm a little fuzzy on that."
"Tough one . . . the Word of God."
"A way of life or a guide for a way of life. Just like the Ten Commandments."
"That's a long story."
"I have no idea, sweetheart."
A few, of course, said, "Not today." But I was delighted to discover, on the whole, these shoppers in pretty good shape with the gospel. My favorite: "The good news. Jesus Christ saves. He saved me." (Here's where I strained ethics and inserted myself into the survey, sharing that He saved me too.) "You too! Praise God. I've been praising Him all morning. . . . You have yourself a blessed day." (She boogies away to her car.)
Wal-Mart was pretty uplifting, but by early afternoon I knew that in the interest of better science I had to boogie away, too, four miles north into the heart of the suburbs-though a different kind of hunch bred foreboding in my heart.
Just so you have the benefit of knowing all I know about the survey, we call the retail store Target "Tar-gét" around here, our way of using humor and irony to sublimate an uncomfortable class consciousness. Here the racial proportions were reversed, while other variables held. Here it was the rarity who stopped to grace me with an answer. I got a lot of "Sorry" and "Not interested" and shrugs and head-shaking, served up with a helping of contempt. (Oops: Survey-taker's subjectivity interjected here.)
One woman fixed my gaze and pronounced professorially, "Myth," then walked away triumphant. When I put my query to a couple of blue-haired ladies with accents who were smoking cigarettes near my station, the spokesperson for the duo wagged her free finger in my face and said, "Your religion is your business and my religion is my business." Later I asked where they were from, and Spokesperson snapped, "That's our business too!" (Eastern European, I'm guessing.)
Two school girls in parochial blues, just missing the mark, giggled as if by rote: "Gospel. About God and Jesus and all He's done for us on how to be good people."
But God had at least three of His people there, too, like wheat mixed in the tares, indistinguishable to the naked eye among the comers and goers at retail chain stores until the right question is put. A teenage girl gave the sharpest answer of all: "Good news," she said. "Care to elaborate?" I asked, violating my one-question promise. "Well, I'm a Christian. The bad news is I'm a sinner. The good news is Christ took care of it for me."
I had the feeling that if I had stayed around a few more hours I would get used to being hated. Breakthrough, of course, would be Acts 5:41, "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name." In my flesh, I have to admit, I would rather have been plying a more friendly survey, like one on Social Security, or "the nuclear option."