Thursday, May 25, 2006

Perception is Everything: A 'How-Not-To' Lesson from Franklin Graham

It's said a picture's worth a thousand words. What does this one say to you?

To me, evangelist Franklin Graham appears to be looking down on the world in this photo, which appears in the current issue of Time magazine.

The photo is shot from an ever-so-slight upward angle, imbuing an air of superiority. His arms are crossed, causing him look unreceptive and unfriendly. Judgmental, even. Behind him, a set of windows forms a cross, and it's all aglow in pure white light--a stark contrast to the darkness which surrounds him. More interestingly, the frames of the windows form two unique shapes: There's an arrow at the top pointing downward to a horizontal line at the bottom. The photo is shot at the perfect angle to show the horizontal line just inches above Franklin's head. The arrow pointing downward to that line seems to say, "Can you measure up to this Christian? He doesn't think so."

Before you throw open your window and yell out, "H is a judgmental meanie!" please let me explain myself. As I looked at this photo and read the accompanying Q&A in Time, I wondered, "How will someone who isn't a Christian view this?" I can't imagine the pressure of being Billy Graham's kid--having every word and action scrutinized. That said, I just gotta scrutinize a couple things in Franklin's interview because it helps me understand how Christians are perceived.

As Christians, our lives are scrutinized, too. We may not have our doings broadcast worldwide like Franklin, but we do add or subtract to others' perception of the church on a daily basis. Let's look at what Franklin said in the Time Q&A, how he had the opportunity to say a little more (or a little less), and what we can learn from his words:

Q: What would Jesus say about AIDS today?

Franklin: In his day, there was leprosy, which was incurable. And Jesus healed lepers. He didn't turn them away. That would be the same reaction today. But Jesus did tell people he healed, "Go and sin no more." And I think that to a person with HIV/AIDS, he would tell them, "Go and sin no more."

Q: Would he tell that to someone with cancer?

Franklin: I think so, because Jesus said that time and time again. I think there are times where a sinful lifestyle can lead to a disease in our bodies. I think Jesus would heal a person who drinks too much alcohol and ends up with cirrhosis of the liver and say, "Don't go back and do that again."

Missed opportunity: While it's true we sometimes cause our own problems, Franklin instead could have acknowledged all of us are sinners--including himself. He could have expanded on Jesus' point: It's awesome to get physical healing, though what we're really in need of is spiritual healing though God's forgiveness.

Side note: When we talk about "sin" with people who aren't Christians, it's good to explain what this means. And really good to explain everyone sins--including ourselves and all Christians.

Here's another passage from Franklin's interview:

Q: Do you still ride your motorcycle and, if so, do you wear a helmet?

Franklin: I do, and yes, it's a state law [to wear a helmet]. ... You know, when I was young, I didn't wear a helmet.

Q: Is it a sin not to wear a helmet?

Franklin: No, it's not a sin. You know the Bible says our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. And if we do something to hurt the bodies that we have, eating too much, eating the wrong foods, drinking too much, we are hurting this body God gave us and I think putting your body at risk when you don't need to put it at risk, like riding a motorcycle without a helmet, I just don't think it makes sense. I think God gave us a brain. He expects us to use it.

Missed opportunity: The interviewer's real question here is probably, "Franklin, have you ever 'sinned'? Are you, in fact, a 'sinner'?"

Franklin could have acknowledged his choice to not wear a helmet as sin. Wearing protective motorcycle gear, such as a helmet, is a necessary precautionary measure. When we choose to rebel against obvious safety, we're in essence rebelling against God. He's given us common sense, and if we don't use it--whether that's not wearing a motorcycle helmet, not using our car seatbelts, overeating, undereating, or standing too close to the edge of a cliff where posted signs say, "DANGER! Rocks unstable!"--we are sinning by our rebellion. We're saying, "We know better than you, God! In your face!"

Additionally, God has put others in leadership over us, so when our government passes a law such as requiring motorcycle helmets, I believe it's a sin to break that law ... unless the government is asking you to oppose God, o' course.

Franklin's answer points to some of these ideas, but he also appears to contradict himself. Pair his second response to that of the earlier question. (He uses the example of excessive alcohol consumption in both responses.) Am I being nitpicky? Yes. Will some other readers, especially those with negative feelings toward Christians, perceive this as an apparent contradiction? Most definitely.

Another missed opportunity here is in Franklin's word choice. He begins, "You know the Bible says our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit." Many people aren't familiar with this reference, and those who are may not understand what this means because it's church language. The body is a what? And what's a Holy Spirit? We expect scientists to explain their research findings in ways we'll comprehend. We expect doctors to simply tell us how to improve our health, and we don't want a bunch of cryptic medical jargon. And we've gotta drop our Christian-speak if we're to effectively communicate with those who've never been to church.

This all may sound like Monday-morning quarterbacking, 20-20 hindsight, woulda-coulda-shoulda directed at Franklin. But this isn't about bemoaning the past--it's passed. It's about preparing for the future. We need to continuously reflect on our own interactions. Trust me, I regularly botch my opportunities to talk about Jesus. In looking back at what I've said, and what I could have said instead, I'm better prepared for my next conversation. As Franklin says, "God gave us a brain. He expects us to use it."

To ponder:
1) There's a perception Christians view themselves as perfect--that "Christian" means the opposite of "sinner." Think of one of your regular struggles (such as profanity, overeating, a bad attitude, speeding on the freeway). How can you use this to illustrate how you're a sinner, too?

2) How do you explain "sin" to someone who's never been to church? How do you explain God's view of sin?

3) In conversations, it's important to acknowledge that one doesn't need to be a Christian to be a good person. Think of some good people who aren't Christians. Choose a mix of well-known philanthropists or social activists, and friends and peers. You can use these to illustrate how someone can be a socially responsible, good person, but still lack a relationship with God.

4) Journalists argue publications must be compelling for readers--thus the strong, emotive photos and specific ordering of words. It's a legitimate argument, though it's also a way to rationalize bias. Can you spot ways the media uses phrases and photos to affect readers' perception?

Compare the Time photo with this kinder, gentler photo from Samaritan's Purse, left.

5) Consider how advertisements are set up to elicit a particular feeling. Now, read a news article or watch a news segment. How were words or pictures used in it to move you emotionally?

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