Our neighbours notice our community service more than our worship services
An online musical drama featuring a gay New Yorker in drag playing Mother Teresa. Doesn’t sound like your cup of tea? More like a nightmare of anti-Christian disrespect?
That’s what I thought too, and was inclined to skip the New Yorker review of the one-person play penned by Heather Christian and acted by Joshua William Gelb.
But I paused instead, wondering what these worldlings would make of Mother Teresa. And I found the review’s conclusion to be something that should give us hope.
This bizarre portrayal of Mother Teresa is actually deeply respectful of both her service and her spirit. Drawing heavily on her published letters, it dives deeply into the longstanding darkness of soul that plagued her almost all her life, the appalling sense of the absence of God with which she struggled even as she worshipped and worked.
"Gelb’s performance," writes reviewer Alexandra Schwarz, "is a shrewd answer to the trick question of how to embody an icon. He doesn’t because he can’t. His Mother Teresa is about as far from the stooped, wrinkled, beneficent postcard version of the woman as you can get. (She has equally little to do with the portrayal of the nun as a grifter and a hypocrite which is favoured by her detractors.) Blasting away accumulated layers of veneration, Gelb and Christian honour the unknowable mystery of the person underneath, an ordinary woman living out an extraordinary life."
Mother Teresa emerges as, truly, a hero.
In these cynical times in which politicians sink to new depths and even pastors publicly explode in scandal, how can the gospel possibly be heard?
As Jesus said it would be, "You are the light of the world. … Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14–16).
Mention Christianity in a Canadian conversation today and what gets triggered? Residential schools. Mount Cashel. Homophobia. Sexism. Those are the items high on the list of what many Canadians "know" about our religion and our community.
Mention Christianity and precisely no one will bring up the Trinity, or substitutionary atonement, or rebirth and sanctification. These doctrines are crucial to our message of hope. What we are known for, however, are our deeds, not our ideas.
The notorious Roman emperor Julian was shamed by the examples of Jews and, even more so, Christians (whom he knew as Galileans). "For it is disgraceful," he wrote, "that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us."
Generosity (or as the New Testament often puts it, grace) is to be a conspicuous mark of Christians by which, yes, even the likes of Julian will know us to be disciples of the Gracious One.
The heart of the Church’s mission is not social service. It is disciple making. But such disciples are made in the likeness of their generous Lord. The abundant life (John 10:10) we are given by the Spirit is a life, yes, of abundant giving (2 Corinthians 9:6–7), following the pattern of a Master who was unimaginably rich, yet for our sakes became poor that we, through His poverty, might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Evangelicals must not be so worried about the slippery slope into mere social-work liberalism that we stint on the generous giving that has marked the Church from its first centuries. Jesus Himself was content that the crowds came for the signs and wonders while only some stayed for the sermon. The Church has always been a service organization. And that’s what our neighbours notice.
In our pathetic status anxiety, we might be impressed with cool preachers in cool sneakers on cool stages. The world, however, is not impressed by Hollywood wannabes since the world has Hollywood itself. What does impress people – can we finally learn this? – is service.
The Christian public relations problem in Canada continues. But what Canadians who know little else about Christianity than scandal also know is the Salvation Army and World Vision. They know the local food banks and overnight shelters.
And they know Mother Teresa, even when portrayed by a gay man in drag. Such is a sign and a wonder in an age hungry for authentic kindness.
John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.