Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Danger of Caricatures and Cartoons

I recently saw this bold statement posted on Facebook:

“The only time religious men put their faith in science is to kill men who believe in different gods.”

I don’t know the source of the quote, but I am stunned by the caricature that it creates, one of religious zealots with bloody hands cheering as others die (the background was of a nuclear blast and resulting mushroom cloud). It assumes a great deal—that all religious men (is it only men, or are religious woman included?) desire to kill people who believe in alternative religions and that they care nothing for science until its time for killing.

I’ve seen this type of thing in a number of places, and so have you—every election season assaults us with the dark art of caricature. We religious folks are just as guilty, too often vilifying our opponents by reducing them to something ridiculous. We do that to atheists, people of other faiths (but hopefully not with intent to kill), evolutionists, and to each other when we disagree on some theological topic.

A caricature, of course, is different from a cartoon. Cartoons aren’t typically depicting particular people, but rather using animation to give life to people and animals that are fun and able to do what we regular creatures cannot do. By contrast, a caricature is a comic representation of a real person (think of those talented artists who love creating caricatures of each new US President).

Of course, a caricature is not the real thing. When we create an ideological caricature of someone, we have not depicted the person with complete honesty. But it feels victorious to mold and shape our comic representations of our enemies and then skewer them, claiming that we have won all arguments. It just isn’t honest.

Various high-profile comedians do this regarding Christianity (think of Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais*). I respect how their journeys of life have resulted in antagonism toward religion in general and Christianity in particular, but when you hear their arguments against religious belief, they come off as disbelief in things cartoonish.

But Christians do this as well. We’re not as good at listening as we ought to be. Conservatives and liberals attack the caricatures of their own creation, but rarely come to the table to listen and understand each other. Some of this comes from ignorance, but a great deal of it, I believe, is grounded in fear—fear of losing something that is important, or even fear of losing dominance and power.

I don’t believe we need to live in the kind of fear that reduces our detractors to nonsensical representations of their true selves. We who follow Jesus don’t have to live in the kind of fear that claims we have things to lose, because we don’t own anything in the first place. It is we who are in the grip of God, and if anyone owns anything it is him. We should be free to engage honestly with those who stand in opposition to us, refusing to take the bait of false characterization.

The apostle Paul, I think, had something to say about this:

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25)

*But I must confess that Ricky Gervais is one of my favorite comedians. Sorry.

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