John Lennon asked us to “imagine there’s no heaven.” In his famous anthem, he envisaged a world that had abandoned religion, nationalism, and capitalism: “Imagine all the people / Living for today … Living life in peace … Sharing all the world.” The picture he painted with his lyrics, piano keys, and crooning voice has proven so attractive that Rolling Stone recently ranked “Imagine” the third-greatest song of all time, characterizing it as “twenty-two lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in imagination and purpose, to repair and change itself.”Bill Crandall et al., “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” Rolling Stone, December 9, 2004. To Lennon and the many who have loved his song, this “plain-spoken faith” in a post-religious world has appeared more palatable than religion itself. To them, Christianity is a dead faith, full of creeds and dogmas that stifle human creativity and love.
I sympathize with this popular perception. In fact, I believe—borrowing a phrase from Mark Noll—that the scandal of the Christian imagination is that there is no Christian imagination. John Lennon imagines; Christians assimilate. Even though I acknowledge this assimilation—and deplore it—in the end I must disagree with Lennon’s vision because I also see a different Christianity. I see the Christianity of a vagabond preacher who proclaimed a countercultural gospel, who challenged the leaders of his time, who was killed as a sacrifice to the norms of his day, and whose resurrection shatters the chains of sin, suffering, and death.
This magazine, Berkeley’s first Christian journal, seeks to paint a fresh picture of Christianity. We desire each issue to canvas a patch of beauty, revealing the transformative power of a religion that preaches grace. We believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change—for the better—each aspect of our lives, our campus, and our world. I want to begin this endeavor by sketching out a few of the possibilities.
In the following three sections, I adumbrate how the Christian imagination might be applied to the areas of politics, business, and art and literature. This outline is just a foretaste of what we hope will be a fruitful blossoming of Christian thought within these pages.
Jim Wallis believes he is onto something new. Prior to the 2004 elections, his organization Sojourners purchased full page ads in major newspapers proclaiming: “God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat.” Sojourners circulated an online petition to this effect, which was signed by thousands. The newspaper ad and the petition declared, “We are not single-issue voters,” and urged, “we call Christians and other people of faith to a more thoughtful involvement in this election, rather than claiming God’s endorsement of any candidate.”
Sojourners does not step far enough with the way they frame their proposal. Republican or Democrat. Presidential elections. Christian political thinking should not end with the contemporary machinery of politics, nor does “a more thoughtful involvement in this election” approximate “the meaning of responsible Christian citizenship,” as the Sojourners’ ad claims.
Jim Wallis is not the only one who suffers from this narrow view of possibility; in fact, he suffers from it less than most. Even what we think of as different is not different enough.
I envision something far more radical. What about a three- or four-party system? A party that could combine some of the important issues aptly noted in Wallis’s ad (e.g., poverty, the environment, the dignity of life) with some that he omitted (e.g., healthcare, the elimination of corruption, policies that support small business and small farmers instead of favoring large corporations) might be able to mobilize the support of a true silent majority.
The American political system itself seems too prone to oligarchy and corruption. Countless reforms are needed: term limits, disclosure laws, true oversight, real accountability.
Finally, Christians too often forget the power of local politics. What happens in our communities can be shaped more by what happens in city council than in the White House. Christians should be aware of and involved in their immediate communities.
Milton Friedman proclaimed that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources to increase its profits.”Milton Friedman, “A Friedman Doctrine—The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970, 125 (quoting from Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom). This belief is a nearly-unquestioned assumption that pervades the worlds of business and economics today. Business exists to make a profit. The bottom line is the consummate goal of any corporation.
Most Christians who enter business accept this proposition as if it were the Golden Rule. It is not; in fact, it is fundamentally at odds with Christian principles. Christianity centers its moral ethics around selfless love. Christ commanded us, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). This principle has applications both to corporate governance and management.
Friedman and his compatriots argue that the only stakeholders in the corporation are its shareholders, those who own a piece of the company. This view ignores the fact that the operations of multinational corporations are made possible by the laws, international treaties, and infrastructures of every country in which they do business. Their employees’ lives are intertwined with the business, a place where they may have worked for dozens of years. The corporation uses natural resources for energy and raw materials, resources that are frequently granted to it by governments. Finally, the corporation is a voracious consumer of public goods such as clean air and clean water. For all of these reasons, a single-stakeholder framework as advocated by Friedman is so simplistic that it borders on immoral. Besides shareholders, employees, governments, and the public should all be considered stakeholders in a corporation. Thus, in evaluating a given business decision, I would argue it is important to step beyond the question of short-term profitability to a limited group of power brokers and to also ask questions of sustainability for employees, citizens, and the environment. Christianity’s vision directs us to look outside the box.
Within the realm of management, does Jesus’ command imply that no underperforming employee should ever be fired? No, but it does mean that a sense of grace and forgiveness should pervade our workplace interactions. It means Christians should eschew business philosophies such as that epitomized by Jack Welch’s demand that his managers fire the bottom 10 percent of their workforce every year.Joseph Nocera, “The Customer Is Usually Right,” review of Jack: Straight from the Gut, by Jack Welch and John A. Byrne, New York Times Book Review, October 14, 2001. The idea that the bottom tenth always deserves to be fired is not only unreasonable and apt to foster an environment that encourages cheating and back-stabbing, as some have criticized, it also dogmatically perpetuates an achievement-oriented ethic that demands consistent high performance and ignores human frailty. Such a view of life does not have a place for grace or mercy, and someone who spends 40 to 80 hours a week immersed in such a culture is unlikely to emerge with an intact Christian moral system. Another ethic could govern business.For instance, a good start might be some of the admirable ideas in Dennis Bakke, Joy at Work (Seattle: PVG, 2005).
Christians in business are too often ignorant to its assumptions, breathing in the air of its culture without recognizing how polluted it is.
Literature & Art
By far the most popular Christian fiction produced in recent decades has been the blockbuster Left Behind series, which has sold more than 65 million copies. The black and white, Manichean view of the world embodied in these novels perpetuates the common misunderstanding that Christianity is a religion of moral judgment with little room for love or grace. In the words of Salon reviewer Michelle Goldberg, in addition to being “over-the-top Christian kitsch,” the series presents “an alternate universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs.”Michelle Goldberg, “Fundamentally Unsound,” Salon, July 29, 2002, http://dir.salon.com/story/books/feature/2002/07/29/left_behind/index.html. Even if it were good literature, I would hesitate to endorse a series that perpetuates negative stereotypes about Christianity.
Instead, I find far more attractive the nuanced worlds painted by Christian writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walker Percy, or Flannery O’Connor, whose works encourage the kind of introspection and humility that is so lacking in the triumphalism of contemporary Christian fiction. These authors proclaim the gospel and do so in a way that is truthful yet appealing to a host of critics.
The Left Behind of the art world is without a doubt the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade, whose work epitomizes Christian kitsch. Joan Didion gives an apt description of his artwork:
A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.Joan Didion, Where I Was From (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 73.
Kinkade has become symbolic of the Christian, middle class ideal: a house in the suburbs with a fireplace and a good lock on the door. Like Left Behind, his work encourages not just bad art but bad theology.
Makoto Fujimura is a contemporary Christian artist whose artwork and essays exemplify the type of thoughtful reflection that I believe is the call of all Christian artists. Fujimura’s works blend traditional Japanese art with abstract expressionism and his Christian faith. His works reflect on a variety of subjects including T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, the Passion of Christ, and the Ten Commandments. In addition, Fujimura has written many insightful essays on Christianity and art, including one titled “Ten Commandments for Artists.” In it, he outlines how Christian artists should approach the world and their vocation.Fujimura’s paintings and essays can be sampled at http://www.makotofujimura.com.
Christianity is not about a retreat from the world; at its core is the story of a God who entered human suffering. There is no place in this gospel for espousing art and literature that encourage a retreat from the suffering and sin we see around us.
Lennon asks us to imagine there is no heaven; I ask us to imagine that there is, but to imagine it in light of an understanding that the Christian gospel offers not just hope for the next world but hope for this one also. Christ began his ministry quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). Christ was sent to the poor and suffering of this world; so does he send us when he bids us to follow him. The vision of love and grace embodied in this radical call is more beautiful than Lennon could ever have imagined. Let us imagine that.