I forget how ingrained Christianity is in the southern culture. Let’s lay aside for the moment the debate over ‘civic religion’ (see my friend Wyman at Walking Together for his blog on a Stanley Hauerwas prayer) and questions of how people confuse Christianity with being an American. Still, it’s everywhere. Many more people here are involved in church and will use ‘church language’ in their natural conversations. Church is simply taken for granted as a part of people’s lives down south in a way that would be completely foreign to many of my neighbours in Great Britain.
For instance, two days ago I went to the dentist in Alabama. I had a very lovely dental hygenist who talked me out of bolting for the door (I had a bad childhood dentist and haven’t really recovered, so it takes a lot). She was wonderful and put me at ease. Anyway, as I was explaining to her what I was doing in Great Britain, she told me she was a member at a United Methodist Church and then said, ‘It’s great that you feel God has blessed you in that way.’ That’s not a typical response I’m used to. I usually get a blank stare and an ‘Oh.’ (Not from those who are in church, and at times other questions do follow.)
Then there was our stop at the South Carolina Welcome Centre Center. I went to the information desk and asked for a SC map. She asked me to sign the book, which I did (writing in my place of origin as England). I then noticed that the person above had written in the comments, ‘Smile! Jesus loves you!’ I decided to look around and see if I could identify the person who did it. Sure enough, I could! Not far a way from the desk was a man, a little older than myself, wearing a Jesus t-shirt. Similarly, driving down the interstate (motorway), I saw a truck with ‘John 3:16’ on the back. No, not written out – just the reference.
Which makes me wonder: why do I roll my eyes when I see something like that? (Honestly, I perhaps would have rolled my eyes at phrases like my dental hygienist said, but I was grateful for the support – she had heard that I hated the dentist.) I’m a Christian, and I believe Jesus does indeed love everybody. So, why do I have such a problem with this harmless, though likely ineffective, form of witnessing? Does it hurt anyone? It does make assumptions which increasingly can’t be made any more – like exactly who is Jesus and what John 3:16 says. Am I being too hard on people when I think that quoting an oversimplified colloquialism about smiling comes close to doing what James tells us not to? While John 3.16 is a great verse and a great summary, can we expect people to grasp that story with one verse when they have no connection to it? Both seem to believe that preaching the gospel can come in a disembodied form that does not need any personal encounter.