Yesterday’s post introduced Tertullian’s classic defense of Christianity. This week I will post one lesson each day from his Apology, an open letter to the Roman emperor.
I should mention two caveats. First, Tertullian was firmly planted in what H. Richard Niebuhr called the “Christ against culture” camp. He famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” He condemned all Roman shows and entertainment (too immodest and idolatrous); believed the chastity of singleness was superior even to Christian marriage (he instructed his wife to remain single should he die, because if God wanted her married he wouldn’t have taken her husband); and thought jewelry, cosmetics and dyeing came from Satan (if God wanted fleece to be blue, he would have made sheep that color). Tertullian took an extreme position on the separation of Christians from mainstream culture. This in no way invalidates his points, but you should know that going in.
Second, our situation today involves two related but distinct issues: the morality of homosexual practice and the coercion of the state to celebrate that. I am reading Tertullian’s Apology for how he responded to government oppression, not for insight into the morality of homosexual practice. It is difficult today to raise the issue of freedom without being charged with unjust discrimination. I understand that, but I intend to focus on the freedom issue, which ultimately has consequences for everyone, whichever side of the marriage issue they are on.
The first lesson to learn from the Apology is have fun. Tertullian was deadly serious about the issues at stake, yet he responded with winsome writing and humor. Perhaps he realized it’s impossible to persuade others if they aren’t reading you, and they aren’t likely to read you if they don’t enjoy your style. So make it fun.
A few examples:
Tertullian noted that the Romans hated the Christians, but many mispronounced their name as “Chrestianus.” He wrote, “You do not even know accurately the name you hate.” If you’re going to punish us for being Christians, at least get our name right (chap. 3).
Tertullian said the Romans claim that Christians are enemies of the state because we don’t participate in their immoral festivals that honor Caesar. He observed that the Romans who participate in the imperial festivals often become dissatisfied with the emperor and depose him. They profess to worship the emperor, right up until the moment they sack him. Yet they have the audacity to claim that Christians are enemies of the state? But we haven’t sacked any emperor! (chap. 35).
Tertullian continues: If the Romans are enemies of the state, then why are Christians, who are assumed to be enemies, not allowed to become Romans? It seems that being an enemy of the state is one of the qualifications to be a Roman (chap. 36).
Tertullian enjoyed word play. He said the Romans often blamed the Christians for hard times. When disaster strikes, the people cry “‘Away with the Christians to the lion!’ ‘What! Shall you give such multitudes to a single beast?’” (chap. 40).
Here’s my takeaway: We must be careful with humor, especially in this disputed area of sexuality. I have seen some attempts at humor that made me wince. Especially on this topic, we must ask how those struggling with sexual temptation or the self-righteous tone of some Christians are likely to take what we have written. If they can justifiably take offense, don’t say it.
But we who have been entrusted with the Word should excel with words. All things being equal, no one should write and speak more creatively than Christians. We must not be content to dump content on people. We must also have style. People demand it and Jesus deserves it. We won’t persuade others if they won’t listen to us, and one way to get them to listen is to get them to laugh. It has worked pretty well for Jon Stewart, and it also might work for us.