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Journalist’s roots help him see ways culture impedes churches

After 27 years in the United States teaching at Whitworth University, Gordon Jackson finds that his South African roots still shape him in two ways. One is his desire to promote free expression as he teaches journalism.  The other is his view that life in American churches is often more in tune with the culture than the faith.

Gordon Jackson
Gordon Jackson applies wit to observations of church life.

Coming from another culture, church setting and political system, he seeks to open eyes of people in U.S. churches to differentiate between Christ’s ways and secular, cultural ways that have seeped into churches.

Aware that a direct prophetic voice stirring discomfort might be ignored or rejected, he has written satirical vignettes with a twist of humor to expose hypocrisies, cultural impediments, consumerism and fear of open discussion.

Gordon has compiled the vignettes written over the years into a book, Jesus Does Stand Up and Other Satires:  Parables, Pictures and Parodies for Today’s Church, published in 2009 by Wipf and Stock in Eugene, Ore.

His commentaries, he said, challenge progressives and conservatives alike.

Gordon moved to Spokane in 1983 with his wife, Sue, who works with international students at Whitworth.  Both graduated from the University of Cape Town.  Gordon earned a master’s degree in journalism in 1975 at Wheaton College in Illinois and then worked for a South African newsmagazine.  He and Sue studied at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he earned a doctoral degree in communication and she earned a master’s in ethnic music.

Although they did not expect to stay in the United States, he found no position in South Africa, and Whitworth needed a journalism professor.  He taught journalism 15 years, served as dean of academic affairs seven years and returned to teaching journalism in 2006 after a year’s leave of absence, spent writing and on a short-term mission in Lebanon and Egypt.

Since he began teaching journalism, Gordon has seen two major changes:  1) the internet revolution and 2) the increased use of technology in the classroom.  However, he said that neither changes his conviction that writing skills are essential.

“I tell students the internet creates new job opportunities, so they need to be more versatile, learning web design and video as well as writing.  They need more diverse skill sets and need to adapt as they go,” said Gordon, who is still learning how best to use PowerPoint as a teaching tool to help students learn.

“We can overdo new media.  In teaching we need to find how to use tools to serve learning goals, not to dazzle students,” he said.

He and Sue, who have attended Whitworth Community Presbyterian Church since 1992, plan to visit South Africa this summer with their adult son and daughter—the first time they have gone as a family in eight years.

In 1994, Gordon and John Yoder, a Whitworth professor of political science with an emphasis on Africa, began a January term study program in South Africa.  Three faculty members take about 20 students every two or three years.  Gordon went four times.  Students stay in homes, learn about AIDS efforts and meet church, political, nonprofit, civic, academic and business leaders. 

It’s an chance to step out of U.S. culture and see life in new ways.

“It’s life-changing for some.  Staying with a range of South Africans, students gain a sense of what the country has been through and what it is dealing with now,” said Gordon, now a U.S. citizen.

In 1994, they went before the election when people still wondered what South Africa would look like.  Now, 16 years after the African National Congress came to power, he is disappointed that “massive poverty” continues. 

“The government has not made headway in addressing poverty,” said Gordon, aware that South Africans are disappointed that after the “remarkable change” under Nelson Mandela, corruption influences the new government.

 In assessing U.S. culture, he said that like anyone with different roots, he sees through different eyes.  From that perspective, his motive to do the book was to take the church to task for being seduced and contaminated by the culture, he said.

“I look at the American church having not grown up in it but caring deeply about it.  I play the role of the court jester, putting my finger on the sore spots few see,” he said.

One parody asks:  “If you were charged with being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

“Most middle class people want to buy the same things and are into the same political agendas as their secular neighbors, whether they are conservative or liberal,” he observed.  “Christians are also as obsessed with entertainment issues as the culture as a whole.”

Another theme is individualism, which has both positive and negative aspects, Gordon said.

“A downside is that individualism can lead to bad theology and narcissism,” he said.  “The starting point is, ‘It’s about me.’”

He exemplifies that in a satire that begins with the opening words of the Lord’s prayer, and after “hallowed be thy name,” the prayer continues, “but enough about you, here’s my problem.”

Many denominations, he noted, market the church in a consumer mode trying to fit in society.

“Power structures of the church are seduced by the power systems of society.  The church’s definition of success mirrors society’s value of growing numerically.  We are in danger of a mindless takeover of market techniques,” he said.

In the book, he reworded the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” to suggest that Jesus is used as a brand or trademark, used to “boost our market value.”

By contrast, the biblical definition of success is stated in Micah 6:8: “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”

An entry on “The Donut Man,” speaks to pettiness—how church members are prone to disagree, argue and split into factions. 

He appreciated when a friend from church suggested the book be required reading for every pastor and church session/board.

The book is directed at church leaders and those who take their faith seriously, to help them see themselves in the mirror, as well as pointing a finger at others for a bit of comic relief.

His goal is to call the church to be what God would have it be.

“Many entries are also drawn from tensions related to my awareness of the world’s massive poverty,” he said.  “Should we have two cars and buy this or that?  U.S. and Western European Christians need to ask these questions.

“We should not be comfortable in the church to the point that we stop asking questions about faith and society,” he said. 

Another reason to raise the questions is that young people see and ask them, and are turned off by the hypocrisy of institutions.

Gordon said Whitworth’s student body of 2,500 students—compared to 1,100 in the early 1990s—is committed to service and seeks ways to bring their gifts to bear for the good of the community and world.  He finds students and faculty—which has also doubled to 140—more globally aware than students and faculty when he first came.

He attributes that to the internet, heightened interest in study abroad and the United States’ diminished role as a super power.

He also sees a growing perception that “the United States can’t afford to be arrogant and isolated,” and Americans need to learn other languages and ways of doing things.

“Students are more alert to global opportunities,” he said.

“It’s important in teaching to remind students of the unique role freedom of expression plays in this country,” Gordon said.  “I grew up in a restricted, censored society.  It was like growing up in a polluted area and moving to where there is clean, fresh, free air.  Americans can breathe freely and do not realize what it is like in other settings.

“We have the gift of free expression and jolly well better use it.  Each generation needs to claim and assert this right,” he said.

Beginning with a sabbatical in the fall of 2008, Gordon has been working on another book addressing censorship in the church.  He plans to title the book, Shut up in Jesus’ Name. 

“Christians need to be open to disagree lovingly and intelligently,” he said, noting that churches tend to “censor” those who disagree on doctrines, driving them out or silencing them.

“There are times we need to draw the lines, but we often draw lines in unChristlike ways—sometimes wanting the state to silence others on hot-button issues,” he said

Often people avoid talking about issues to keep the “peace.”

“Look at Jesus’ readiness to plunge into hot topics,” he said.  “We need to look at what in local churches limits our ability to be a more authentic church.”

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Copyright © June 2010 - The Fig Tree