I spend most of my time reading and writing about Edith Nesbit. Most Brits remember her best for her novel, The Railway Children. The stage-play adaptation has seen sold out runs in York and London for the last three summers and will be staged this summer in Toronto, starring Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City). My focus though, is on Nesbit’s larger body of work, including her supernaturalistic novels and religious poetry.
I’ve been thinking lately about the way poems like Nesbit’s “Inasmuch as ye did it not” and Woodbine Willie’s* “When Jesus Came to Birmingham” serve as critiques of the failure of the local church to serve the needs of the community, especially those most vulnerable. This is not their only purpose nor is it, in my opinion, their most significant literary contribution.
It could be partly a case of hyper sensitivity, but it strikes me that many of the issues facing the church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (as expressed in its literature and poetry), particularly in terms of its wealth compared to the rest of society, are finding new forms as governments (at least in Britain) cut spending on services for the homeless, the infirm and the elderly. An excerpt from “Inasmuch as ye did it not” reads:
What’s the good of your churches,
When these have nowhere to sleep?
How can I hear your praying
When they are cursing so deep?
Although they may seem wholly unrelated, it strikes me that projects like Jesus Needs New PR, Church Marketing Sucks, and Stuff Christians Like are actually performing a similar function even though the tools are vastly different and the agenda less focused specifically on social justice. The use of biting satire or piercing comparisons highlighting hypocrisy, the inane, a seemingly humorous theological error expressed hyperbolically, or lack of compassion among Christians for each other, makes for good copy. There’s a kind of nerdy Christian humor requiring one to “get” the in-joke, to see the layers of irony and levels of meaning. One concern I have with these kind of projects, however, is that there is sometimes a pseudo-intellectual hipster judgment of those who may be less artistically literate but still sincere about expressions of their faith.
Nonetheless, there’s something about the way poetry and visual images (and commentary on visual images) have the capacity to set up striking juxtapositions that challenge our preconceptions of the status quo. Ultimately though, it’s also important that deeper theological problems are explored. Speaking truth is important, but so is the awareness that while using sledgehammers to knock down the walls of canned cliches, it’s also important not to hit those comfortably protected by the walls with shrapnel in the attempt to expose them to the light (and beauty) of truth with its nuances and textures.
I wonder whether it is unhelpful that our memories are staggeringly short when it comes to critique of the public perception of the church, particularly its role in the promotion of social justice. I’m not criticizing the enterprise as much as pointing out some earlier corollaries. But I do wonder, is it really Jesus that needs “new” PR? Or is it that local Christian churches need to worry less about public relations for its own sake and concern themselves more with living as those saved, who are commanded to care for the widows, the orphans and, by extension, the most vulnerable in our communities? For it is from living alongside others that we come to understand how they view the church, as well as their opinions of Christians, God and the Christ they perceive we (as Christians) to represent, not just in order to explore “brand” awareness, but because we are commanded to love our neighbour.
*Woodbine Willie’s real name was Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy.