Television writer and producer Merchant believes that much damage has been done by the religious right and that the so-called "culture war" should not be the focus of the Christian faith. He's working on a documentary about loving the people one may disagree with, encouraging dialogue instead of harsh slogans. It's a fine idea, but this book of the same name as the film is a somewhat disjointed collection of transcripts. Merchant dons a suit plastered with bumper stickers to interview passersby in Times Square, and interviews notable faith-and-politics leaders including Tony Campolo, Rick Santorum, Al Franken and Michael Reagan. He sits down with a man who dresses as a nun in San Francisco, confesses his lack of love to homosexuals at the Pride Northwest festival and participates in a foot-washing for the homeless in Portland. The interviews and characters presented can be compelling and thought-provoking, though the book feels scattered and rushed, incorporating multiple outrageous, made-for-the-screen moments. Merchant reiterates popular themes but without the thoughtfulness of Jim Wallis or the research of David Kinnaman's unChristian, and the concluding list of questions is particularly unsatisfying. (Mar. 11)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?by Dan Merchant
Lord, Save Us from Your Followers
Hen did telling others of life-transforming faith turn into a bumpersticker mentality which allows someone to state an opinion without the inconvenience of listening to another point of view? How did the public perception of Jesus' followers get so far away from His teachings? One man took two years of his life to find out.
Lord, Save Us from Your Followers chronicles an intellectually daring search for meaningful dialogue. Follow author and film-maker Dan Merchant as he dons a bumper sticker jumpsuit to conduct street interviews in major cities, discusses the culture war with diverse media players such as Al Franken and Michael Reagan, and experiences what Project Mercy is accomplishing in drought-ravaged Ethiopia.
Merchant's journey is an insightful, humorous, and objective account that will move you to laughter and tears. But most of all, it will make you think about who Jesus really is and who He encourages all of us to be.
- Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
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Read an ExcerptLord Save Us from Your Followers
Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?
By Dan Merchant
Copyright © 2008 Dan Merchant
All right reserved.
I think America has become a bumper-sticker culture-we're way too comfortable with one-way communication. We like to tell people what we think, but we don't like to listen, and I fear we've lost the fine art of conversation-which explains why I was standing in Times Square on a late Tuesday night in December dressed like a human bumper sticker. Call this a creative attempt to resurrect dialogue and understanding-or as my wife affectionately put it, "I can't believe you're going to go out in public in that stupid suit just to have a conversation with a stranger." Yes friends, desperate times demand desperate measures.
I should let you know that I was taping my "adventures in conversation"-if I could actually engage people in genuine conversation, whose beliefs might vary from mine, then I wanted some proof for the skeptics.
Crossing Broadway I strode confidently in my Bumper-Sticker Man Suit toward Jimmy the cinematographer, who kept pulling his headphones off and making that "I can't hear anything" face.
"The wireless won't work with all this interference." He shrugged. I followed his hand as he gestured at the plethora of glowing video screens, neon signs, and electronic billboards that define Times Square. I noticed the ABC television studios across the intersection and the MTV studios above me. I was probably not the only guy on the block with a wireless microphone.
"Could be the radios in the taxi cabs," Jimmy thought aloud.
"The interference could be caused by small bursts of evil emanating from MTV," I said with a straight face.
After twenty years of friendship and labor together, Jimmy merely cracked a smile and kept working, "You'll have to go handheld." He pitched me the stick microphone.
I noticed a couple strolling down the wide New York City sidewalk toward us, "We're on," I whispered. My eyes got wide as I gestured at the pair with my eyebrows. It might have looked like a nervous condition to the untrained eye, but Jimmy understood my subtle signal and in a flash he had the camera on his shoulder. Young Jim Bob from Wichita, Kansas, spun his finger in the air to indicate "we're rolling."
As the couple approached they couldn't help but be drawn in by the mesmerizing power of the bumper-sticker suit. Their momentary bemusement was all the opening I needed.
"Hi, can I ask you five quick questions for a documentary film we're making?" The tall handsome man with gray hair and beard, glasses, and a gray jacket-who reminded me a little of Harrison Ford-exchanged a quick glance with his cute, bespectacled companion. "Okay, sure," he answered and introduced himself as Lou.
DAN: How do you think the universe began?
LOU: With a big bang.
DAN: Where do you think you'll go when you die?
DAN: Just in the dirt someplace?
LOU: From whence I came.
DAN: Anytime you can work poetry into an answer you're in good shape. All right, third question: Name something Jesus Christ is known for.
LOU: [thoughtful pause] Raising the dead and caring for the poor.
DAN: Those are two pretty excellent feats. Okay, name something the Christian people are known for. LOU: Today? Selective hatred and intolerance. DAN: The ball kinda got dropped somewhere along the way? LOU: Between Jesus and the Christians I think it was dropped a long time ago. DAN: Okay, last question: I've heard the phrase "culture wars." Do you know what this phrase means? LOU: The culture wars? Sure, it's secular culture that's based on reason opposed by religious culture based on superstition. DAN: So following Jesus is a superstition or are you saying religion, in a broad sense, is superstitious? LOU: Believing in Jesus ... [Lou breaks up laughing] I don't believe I'm doing this ... yes, following Jesus as He is followed today, as a religious icon, is superstition. Following Jesus, the man, who is probably, in some way, a Son of God, is not. DAN: I appreciate the distinction; I see where you're going with that. In conclusion, I'd appreciate it if you'd take a moment to gaze upon my suit. I am Bumper-Sticker Man. Is there a particular emblem or bumper sticker that speaks to you?
Lou took a moment to study the bumper-sticker suit before selecting a favorite.
LOU: Let's see ... I like "God Spoke and Bang It Happened." I think that fits nicely with Darwin and the Jesus Fish-not a Jesus Fish but a Fundamentalist Christian Fish. DAN: [laughs] Thanks. The whole idea with this suit, well, it seems to me like complex ideas are being reduced to simple bumper-sticker slogans and that seems good enough for a lot of people. What are you finding? LOU: I find that I agree with you. Complex ideas are reduced to bumper-sticker statements and there is no conversation between the two extremes that are represented on your costume. I shouldn't say costume-on your clothing, sorry. DAN: No, I'm not offended by "costume" because we're having an open dialogue; this is how we do it. We're actually having a conversation.
Lou and I shook hands and shared a final laugh. I have to tell you I was exhilarated by this chat with a smart and interesting person ... who doesn't believe what I believe. I loved that Lou was open to the idea that he and I could enrich our national conversation together by respecting each other and sharing with each other.
In a way, the Bumper-Sticker Man suit was my twist on the time-honored tradition of the believer on the street corner with the sandwich board. You know the classic "Repent or Burn," "Repent Sinner," "Jesus Loves You," and even the more friendly "John 3:16," but somehow, over the years this one-way, one-sided approach failed to foster engagement and mostly just alienated folks he most wanted to connect with. That approach always seemed like, "I have the answer, and you don't. Come over here and I'll tell you why you're screwed up." Even if we do have the answer, do you think anyone is going to listen to that?
And as a believer, a Christian, a guy who loves Jesus, these street preachers would offend me because they assumed I needed them to lecture me, to save me. They never asked where I was coming from, and it didn't seem as though they cared. Well, I wanted to know why the gospel of love was dividing America, and if I was going to find the answer, I would have to do more listening than talking ... but first I had to get people to talk.
A group of twentysomethings moved loudly down the sidewalk, laughing and shouting. A mischievous looking guy in jeans and a sweat jacket grinned at me as he and his crew waited at the corner for the traffic light. His name was Jeff.
DAN: Can I ask you five quick questions? They're easy. JEFF: Throw 'em at me. DAN: How do you think the universe began? JEFF: Big bang. DAN: Number two: Where do you think you'll go when you die? JEFF: Hopefully heaven. DAN: Number three: Name something Jesus Christ is known for. JEFF: Magic tricks ... I mean miracles. No, I mean magic tricks. DAN: What is your favorite magic trick? Like card tricks? The disappearing goldfish? JEFF: I'll go with water into wine, my friend. That ain't a bad little trick. DAN: Number four: Name something Christians are known for. JEFF: Fanaticism? Is that a word? DAN: Sadly, yes. Number five: Have you heard this phrase, the "culture wars"? What's with all this us versus them stuff? JEFF: I don't know, I guess we all don't fit together. DAN: Pick a bumper sticker ... JEFF: I'm gonna go with "Overturn Roe v. Wade." That's a winner.
The Five-Questions approach served two functions. One, it was a quick and playful way to engage people, and two, it quickly set the parameters. Based on how they answered the five questions, I better understood where my new friends were coming from, which allowed me to have a more interesting and fruitful dialogue with them (and, hopefully, they with me). Of course, sometimes the questions turned out more to be something for them to name than questions. But let's not nitpick.
Despite the late hour, Rosie had a bouncy step, a big smile, and great laugh-but this is the city that never sleeps, isn't it? She was in her thirties, wore a colorful knit cap, and was of Jewish heritage.
DAN: Question number one: How do you think the universe began? ROSIE: The universe began? Hmmm ... it developed over time. DAN: All right, number two: Where do you think you'll go when you die?
ROSIE: I think I will probably go away and ... I think I will no longer be here when I die. And I'll be, hopefully, a good memory for my family and friends.
DAN: Question number three: Name something Jesus Christ is known for.
ROSIE: I'm thinking of ... being condemned at the cross or however it is we're supposed to say it. I don't know what it was that He was, but I know He was put up on that cross.
DAN: It wasn't much of a picnic, whatever you want to call it. ROSIE: That was the image I thought of initially so that's what I went with on your question. DAN: That's excellent. I want to remind you that there are no wrong answers. ROSIE: Oh, good. DAN: Fourth question: Name something the Christian people are known for. ROSIE: Hmm ... trying to get other people to be Christian would be one answer I'm thinking of. [laughs] DAN: That's come up once or twice in your days? ROSIE: I've heard that, yeah. [laughs] DAN: Lastly, I've been hearing about this thing called the culture wars. Have you heard this phrase?
ROSIE: To be honest, it's not too familiar, but I'm assuming that it has something to do with different religious groups thinking that their position should be the most powerful.
DAN: You know what? Bottom line, you're probably close. I think they're referring to the hot-button issues like abortion rights, gay marriage, whether or not to teach intelligent design in schools ... what do you make of these skirmishes? ROSIE: I think, for the most part, that everyone should mind their own business and let everyone do individually what they want to do-as long as they're not imposing their opinion on others.
DAN: A "live and let live" type deal? ROSIE: I would say so. DAN: Great, Rosie, thank you. ROSIE: You bet. Take care. Peace.
The thing about the bumper-sticker suit that stops people is the dichotomy on parade. Most nut jobs on the street who are wearing a ridiculous getup like this only display their own point of view. It becomes clear to any onlooker: This guy is just going to shove his idea of the world down my throat, and I don't need it. That wasn't going to work for me; I wanted the bumper-sticker suit to mirror the debate we're having in our country. The suit is an invitation of sorts to anybody who wants to have a conversation. That's why I went out of my way to represent as many points of view as possible with the bumper stickers and emblems. You can see people trying to reconcile why there is a Jesus Fish positioned next to the Darwin Fish, a "Real Men Pray" sat next to "Free Jesus," "Where's My Church, Dude?" contrasted with "Vote Pro-Life," and so on. All the assumptions go out the window: Hey, whose side is this guy on anyway? I hoped this playful complication would signal to people that I was "open," I was willing to listen, and my main priority was to jump-start a dialogue in this country.
There are some in America who think religious values have gained inappropriate sway in the public square. These folks fear the influence of faith and feel this map defines voting patterns and personal beliefs more accurately than the red-state, blue-state model.
There are others in America who think secular humanism has gained inappropriate sway in the public square. These folks fear that a lack of faith is eroding the values and traditions that have come to define America and in the near future there will be no expressions of faith allowed in the public square. Every city named after a saint will have to change its name! This just in-St. Paul shall now be called New Leningrad.
Nine Out of Ten
Just to prove I did research for this book (and because the numbers are fascinating), I'm sharing with you some basic statistics about our country that I culled from the 2000 U.S. Census Report. By now there may be more current numbers, a 2004 or even a 2008 census of some sort, but the 2000 one is what I studied, and I'm not looking up any more numbers. In 2000 the population of the United States was pegged at 281,421,906, and I seem to recall hearing that we recently eclipsed the 300 million mark, so if 2000 is too ancient for you, please feel free to consult an updated census. But it really won't make much of a difference and besides they're only numbers and don't reveal the nuances of an individual's belief system. So there! See what happens when I get aggravated? It's not pretty ... sorry about that.
Okay, so according to the 2000 U.S. Census, 75 percent of the people in the U.S. identified themselves as Christian. The split is about 50 percent Protestant and 25 percent Catholic, and within that number 125 million American citizens identified themselves as born-again or an evangelical-which strikes me as an astounding number! A couple of other sources suggest the total of evangelicals may be closer to 80 million and the National Association of Evangelicals is 30 million members strong, so my conclusion is ... that's a lot of followers.
Since numbers demand context before any real meaning can be applied, here's a few comparisons for those of you scoring at home: the combined number of atheists and agnostics matches the 2.5 million members of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, which, coincidentally, is about equal in number to those practicing Native American spiritual traditions.
And while we're playing with numbers, let's add the godless atheists and agnostics together and combine them with the Native Americans and you have roughly five million people, which is about the total number counted in the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender community. Of course, there is some question as to how accurate the GLBT total in Census 2000 is, since that specific question wasn't asked, but that's the trouble with a census-the information is limited by whoever is asking the question.
Here is one question that was specifically asked: How often do you attend church? Of the population, about four in ten won't attend church all year and about four in ten will attend more than once this month. So the numbers are tricky: 75 percent checked the Christian box ("Well, honey, I'm obviously not a Hindu, what box do you want me to check?"), but only 40 percent felt strongly enough about their faith to find a church and attend regularly. Of course, I'm not disqualifying your faith if you don't attend church regularly; I'm just saying numbers lie.
I hear people on TV ranting about "Nine out of ten people believe in God ... therefore we should throw Darwin out of school, sing 'Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore' before class, and all vote Republican." The numbers are interesting, don't you think? Nine out of ten Americans believe in the existence of God? And to think we could only get four out of five dentists to come together on that sugarless-gum controversy.
Nine out of ten people, really? (And, hey, I heard this number straight from Diane Sawyer's lips when she was interviewing Mel Gibson on 20/20 when The Passion of the Christ had taken the country by storm.) I suspect that of the nine, not all are picturing the God who parted the Red Sea. There's probably somebody who still believes Clapton is God, though Slowhand has slowed down a bit in recent years (although that Robert Johnson covers album is expertly and lovingly rendered, I have to say).
Maybe this is my own personal issue, but I have a hard time believing a check in the box can tell us anything meaningful. The raw numbers are incomplete, and I needed more detail, hence hitting the streets as Bumper-Sticker Man to ask Americans what they really believe to be true.
Excerpted from Lord Save Us from Your Followers by Dan Merchant Copyright © 2008 by Dan Merchant. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Dan Merchant is an Emmy Award winning television writer/producer and oft-mocked youth basketball coach. He has been happily married for twenty years and is the Father of two.
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