“Who did you bring with you?” That, Dear Reader, is the question God will supposedly ask us Christians when we beg admittance to the Heavenly Kingdom. I don’t suppose the person who thought this gem up really thinks of Heaven as a dinner party to which we all are expected to escort a plus-one or a resort hotel in which the rooms (all suites, mind) have a minimum occupancy of two guests. Nevertheless, the phrase needs to die — quickly, before it does more damage. For it is a most deplorable example of what I call Bumper Sticker Christianity: the reduction of complex questions of faith to catchphrases that are — with apologies to H. L. Mencken — clear, simple, and wrong.
Three Ugly Truths
Before we tear into this catchphrase, we ought to acknowledge some inconvenient truths. The first and ugliest: Much if not most of the language Christianity has developed over the centuries has little to no meaning for people of the postmodern West. Writes English and apologetics professor Dr. Holly Ordway, “To most people raised in a secular culture and educated in a secular school system, the words we use to talk about even the most basic principles of the Faith are jargon-words” (Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, p. 25). Worse, most communities that have a jargon share a common understanding of the words’ meanings; this can no longer be truthfully said about Western Christians.
The second ugly truth: Complex ideas and doctrines are built on simpler concepts that people forget are assumed. First-graders do not begin their math education by learning quadratic equations but by learning simple addition and subtraction. To discuss redemption, for example, you first should discuss how sin puts us in debt to God (the Lord’s Prayer in Luke: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”), explain enslavement to sin, perhaps even talk about debt slavery. Too often, discussions begin in media res, as it were; the evangelist assumes a common understanding of basic truths the audience doesn’t know or share.
Finally, let’s admit it: The simpler it is, the more memorable it will likely be. No one remembers anything from Edward Everett’s two-hundred-page oration at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, or even that he was there. Abraham Lincoln’s two-hundred-word address at the same event is one of the greatest speeches of the English language. Verbosity is more often a sign of laziness (mea culpa) than evidence of profound thought. Bumper stickers, like advertising slogans and Internet memes, are written to stick in people’s minds. By contrast, Church documents and references have never been known for snappy, attention-grabbing prose.
The Bumper Sticker Fallacy
However, the more you know about a topic or idea, the harder it is to simplify. Simplification comes with two hazards — either over-explain and confuse or bore your audience, or under-explain and mislead the audience. People who admire speakers and writers for their ability to put difficult subjects in plain English often don’t realize the hours, days, even months of intense effort the authors put into preparing their work. As Randolph Churchill once commented about his father Winston, “You don’t know how much time my father has spent preparing his impromptu remarks.”
For some reason, we have this common idea that you can say everything that needs to be said about a topic in twenty words or less — a mic drop. But while “brevity is the soul of wit,” brevity is relative, and wit isn’t the same thing as wisdom. People who smugly tell us that “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it very well” have never clocked their word-count while explaining something to a child … especially with all the seemingly endless repetitions of “Why?”And, sometimes, shortening things so drastically reveals only philistine ignorance.
For example, I once saw a bumper sticker which sniggered, “When religion ruled the world, they called it THE DARK AGES.” Fact: Religion has never, in any meaningful sense, “ruled” the world. On the other hand, religion is still a powerful influence in human affairs today, and will most likely continue to be an influence in the future. (Why is a subject for another time.) The Catholic Church had some secular power in the Middle Ages, particularly in the Papal States, but never more than secular rulers granted her, and occasionally suffered interference and violence at the hands of local tyrants.
And don’t get me started on “the Dark Ages” …!
A bumper sticker isn’t supposed to be taken seriously, you say. However, humor is no excuse for ignorance or foolishness. The philistine who slapped the “Dark Ages” idiocy on his car didn’t buy it because he recognized its errors but because he thought it spoke the truth in a funny way. He bought it to advertise his scorn for religion. In doing so, he revealed that his ill-regard is based in some part on a poor, distorted grasp of history. Too many people buy themselves unnecessary trouble because they talk without thinking about what they say. Better to over-think such things than be accounted thoughtless.
The Particular Judgment is Particular
The point of the question, “Who did you bring with you?” is that every Christian is responsible for promoting the faith, for carrying out the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (cf. Matthew 28:19-20). We tend to think of evangelization and apologetics as vocations to which a few people are called; and, sure, not everyone is given the gifts necessary to be effective at converting people. However, the most effective conversion tool is a life lived according to the gospel message. This tool, we must insist, is within every Christian’s reach with God’s help.
Having said that: Nobody can really take credit for someone else’s admission into Heaven. At best, we get an assist; God scores all the goals.
The most salient fact about the particular judgment is that it will be particular. God will judge according to each person’s own choices, not according to the efforts of those around them. Indeed, the failure of Christians to evangelize or properly instruct the person may prove a mitigating factor: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him” (Romans 10:14)? No matter how good your intentions, you can’t frog-march anyone into Heaven against their will.
The primary task of the Christian is not to make disciples but to perfect their own discipleship. Comparing Christian life to athletes in training, St. Paul told the Corinthians, “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). God already knows to the finest degree the influence we have on others. However, even casting out demons and performing miracles in Christ’s name doesn’t guarantee acceptance into Heaven (cf. Matthew 7:21-23).
The Faith is a Complex Thing
Short phrases are fine for simple concepts. But trying to pack complex concepts and doctrine, like Christian eschatology, into a bumper sticker slogan or a mic drop does everyone a disservice. It may be difficult to help non-Christians find meaning in the technical language of our faith. But if we aren’t supposed to take bumper stickers seriously, then why should anyone take Bumper Sticker Christianity seriously?
If anything, the Christian faith ought to provoke thought, not lull it. God didn’t give us brains just to fill the space between our ears. He gave them to us so we can think — to think about the things we say and do as well as the things we see and hear. We simplify to make understanding and acceptance of the faith easier, not to make thinking unnecessary. The faith is a complex thing because, at its beginning and end, it touches on things that transcend the limits of our understanding.
Christian doctrine does not belong on a bumper sticker. Bumper stickers are cheap, ephemeral, and meaningless. The faith is priceless, eternal, and meaningful. By all means, keep it simple. But don’t make it stupid.