I was traveling not long ago and picked up a copy of Harper's magazine. Flipping through the pages, my eyes stopped on an article entitled "Like I Was Jesus: How to Lead a Nine-Year Old to Christ." Intrigued, I read on. But this was no primer on evangelism.
Writing her first piece for Harpers', Rachel Aviv recounts her summer spent as an embedded journalist with Child Evangelism Fellowship. Although Aviv never mentions it, Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is the largest Protestant Christian organization in the world that seeks to evangelize children.
CEF staff in New Jersey and New York initially turned down Aviv's requests to spend time following them as a reporter. Finally, one CEF staff member, Joshua Guido, agreed. So in the summer of 2008, she followed with them as they conducted Bible camps for youngsters in what she describes as a "largely black and Hispanic neighborhood" on the northern edge of Waterbury, Connecticut.
Sadly, instead of an objective look at the work of CEF, Aviv's article is what I would call a prime example of "othering"-of defining some individual or group as being different in some fundamental way and therefore not belonging. In history this "otherness," often based on race, religion, behavior, or appearance, has often led people to view these "others" as less intelligent, subhuman, or having strange and threatening worldviews. For Aviv, it appears that Christians are that strange "other"-they're exotic creatures to be put under the microscope and feared.
In her piece, Aviv skewers not only orthodox belief but CEF, their staff, and even the families who permitted their children to attend the camps. She compares the CEF staff to "overseas proselytizers at the turn of the century who swoop down on deprived, often illiterate people and inundate them with foreign notions." These foreign notions include "Jesus died on the cross" and "I will meet him in heaven."
So now the bedrock doctrines of the Christian faith around the world are merely foreign notions.
Aviv ridicules the notions of sin and salvation. To her the Bible simply offers an entry into what she calls a "fairy tale realm," where time is everlasting and good and evil have consequences. She lampoons the CEF staff, saying that they embrace the child as "an ideal believer, a mascot for anti-intellectualism."
Aviv's piece is just a part of a growing pattern of the post-modern, secular media "othering" Christians and those of any religious faith. We saw this in the 2003 Harper's article, "Jesus Plus Nothing," when Jeff Sharlet secretly embedded himself in The Fellowship, the group that birthed and nurtures the Prayer Breakfast movement. Or with the more recent Brown University student, Jeff Roose, who embedded Liberty University and turned his experiences into a book.
The patronizing tone of these pieces is certainly bothersome. But much more worrisome is the history of what this kind of "othering" produces: it's dehumanization.
And that's only one small step removed from oppression, disenfranchisement, and frequently even violence. That's one slippery slope I hope we never see our culture go down.
This commentary originally appeared on October 20, 2009