Connecting with Culture
It’s been said that culture is ‘what we make of the world’, but what does that look like as Christians? How can we begin conversations about what’s goin...
Lessons in Chemistry, the bestselling debut novel by Bonnie Garmus, was published earlier this year. The story of Elizabeth Zott, an American scientist, has been described as life-enhancing and brimming with courage.
But it’s a controversial read. Critics claim that, far from being a revealing commentary on 1960s America, it’s a searing diatribe against men, God, and the church.
Garmus, a disillusioned church-goer, describes herself and her character Elizabeth Zott as humanist. Interestingly, though, even Zott admits ‘some days the human race makes me sick.’ In the book, professing Christians are abusive, mean-spirited, unkind – which may or may not be based on the author’s own experience. It’s completely understandable that people turn away from Jesus when his followers behave like that.
And we know, as Jesus did, that stories have power. So how can we have positive discussions about faith when faced with such negative images of the faithful: sexist, judgemental, abusive?
First, we need to admit these things happened, and still do. There is no defence. The church has played its part in perpetuating patriarchy and abuse, staining our collective integrity. Perhaps we should thank people for portraying them in fiction, so we remain horrified, and do our part to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Jesus reserved his most scathing words for those who taught God’s ways while remaining dedicated to their own: hypocrites, vipers, whitewashed tombs.
Second, we can highlight more positive depictions. In the book, a Presbyterian priest, Reverend Wakely, shows kindness and integrity. He speaks honestly about how science has challenged his beliefs. He talks of ‘needing more inventive ways to tell his flock to stop being so mean to one another’. These are opportunities for faith discussions. Can scientists be Christians? What does Jesus expect from those who love him? ‘Faith isn’t based on religion, right?’, asks Zott’s daughter, Madeline. Is there a difference between religion and faith? What is it?
The negative messages about Christianity portrayed in this book could be balanced by recommending books which depict more positive ones: Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife, the Isabella Smugge series, or the books of SL Russell. Even better, be the book. Living examples of Jesus-followers are most compelling of all.
Stories have the power to change culture. We need to write and tell more stories of Jesus-followers who are like him: generous, inclusive, kind. Christians have the right to create characters who mirror their own experience. And so does Bonnie Garmus.