This morning, when I read the news that Elisabeth Elliot died, I was sad, but not for her. I was sad for her family and friends, because I know that they will miss her, but I wasn’t sad for Elisabeth Elliot. If I could live a life even a tenth as full as the life she lived, if I were able to influence even a fraction of the number of people she influenced for the sake of the Gospel, if my life pointed to Jesus even marginally as much as hers did, then I would consider my life to have been well-lived. So rather than mourning her passing, I want to share a couple of memories of when I was privileged to meet Elisabeth Elliot, and I share these memories as a way of celebrating her life.
It was the mid-1990’s, I was in my late 20’s, I was single, and I was living in one of the most beautiful cities on earth – Charleston, South Carolina. I was working full time for the resident theater company at the Dock Street Theater, and I was attending East Cooper Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the area, where I was a regular part of the single’s ministry.
When my friend John and I heard that Elisabeth Elliot was coming to town to speak, we – as good Christian singles – recognized the moment as a perfect double date opportunity. This was, after all, Elisabeth Elliot – an actual living legend and hero of the faith – the former missionary who gained fame for ministering to the Huaroni tribe in Ecuador, the very people who murdered her husband and his colleagues, a story made famous in the book Through Gates of Splendor.
Not only that, but Elliot was also a prolific writer, authoring many books that should be required reading for followers of Jesus, including a biography of missionary Amy Carmichael, a biography of her late husband Jim (who most young Christian men want to emulate at some point), and Passion and Purity, which was one of the most convicting books I ever read on the subject of dating – and a book that is possibly one of the most counter-cultural books a person could read these days.
So, yeah… a perfect double date.
Being the complete goober that I am, and wanting to impress my date that night, I brought the ultimate impress-your-date accessories to the Elisabeth Elliot talk: a couple of Pez dispensers. Inspired by an episode of Seinfeld, I offered Pez to my date during the middle of the talk, with thankfully less explosive results.
Afterwards, we stood in line for the opportunity to meet Mrs. Elliot, and while we waited, I commented that everyone seemed to be talking to Elisabeth Eliot very earnestly, pouring out their hearts, sharing deep things in their brief two or three minute audience.
“That has to be emotionally exhausting,” I said, “listening to so many heart-felt things from so many people all of the time. I should offer her a Pez.”
“You should what?” my date asked, laughing.
“Offer her a Pez,” I replied. “Seriously, she would probably really appreciate something different.”
“Offer Elisabeth Elliot a Pez? Elisabeth Elliot? You won’t do it,” she said, and she looked back at John for confirmation. He just smiled and shook his head.
He knew me well.
“Here, you hold Gonzo as a backup,” I said, handing her my second favorite dispenser. Then I turned and started planning what I would say when I reached the living legend. I figured I had about five minutes until it would be my turn.
“This is Elisabeth Elliot we’re talking about here,” my date insisted, no longer laughing. “And you’re going to offer her a Pez?”
“She’ll love it,” I replied. “It’ll thrill her to hear something different.”
I tucked Kermit into the shirt pocket of my blue Oxford and wiped my now-sweaty hands on my pants. Whatever I said to her would have to be simple and to the point. I didn’t want to take up too much of her time. I needed to say what I needed to say, and get out.
And then, too soon – much too soon – it was my turn.
There I stood, before Elisabeth Elliot. The Elisabeth Elliot. The woman who had been married to Jim Elliot. The woman who’d had the strength of faith and character to forgive the people who had taken Jim from her. The woman who had more wisdom, life experience, theological understanding, and humility in her little finger than I had in my entire body.
She looked at me expectantly from her seat at the small, round, wooden table, ready to hear what I had to say. She was so distinguished and regal, but also open and friendly, and behind her, her husband Lars stood like a protecting force. He was quite the imposing figure.
Maybe I shouldn’t do this? This woman had experienced so much in her life, had helped so many people, and she was more than just a woman, she was also a beloved icon of my faith.
And I was going to offer her a Pez?
I chanced a glance back at my date, and her eyes were wide. She shook her head almost imperceptibly, pleading. Then I looked at John, who stood beside her. He nodded.
His nod said exactly what I needed to hear.
You got this.
Emboldened, I turned and sat down across from Elisabeth Elliot, and launched into my hastily prepared, mostly unrehearsed speech.
“Mrs. Elliot, you have helped so many people through the years with your words and your writing, including me. I have been inspired by your story, and the way that you challenge my generation. But I know you hear this all of the time, and so rather than just telling you, I want to demonstrate my appreciation.”
To this day I don’t know if it was my imagination or not, but it seemed that Lars leaned closer with a concerned look in his eye.
I ignored him and pressed on.
“And so, Mrs. Elliot, I would like to offer you a Pez.”
What happened next happened two different ways. First, is the way it happened in my mind, and second was the way that it really happened.
In my mind, I smiled a charming smile, reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out Kermit. In one fluid motion, I set him on the table in front of Mrs. Elliot, and pulled back on the frog’s head to reveal the lemon flavored candy within. She, of course, laughed with delight and received the proffered Pez. She smiled up at Lars, who visibly relaxed, and then she turned back to me, leaned forward, and placed her hand on mine. Conspiratorially, she whispered, “I really needed this, young man. Thank you for being so clever and unique.”
The moment was magical, and certainly my date was suitably impressed, and at this point, a second date would be assumed. I would walk away from this night a hero, Christianity Today would issue a special edition just to name me one of the 25 under 25 most influential young Christians, and then the pièce de résistance, Billy Graham himself would invite me to The Cove to join him in some North Carolina barbecue.
That was what happened in my mind.
Following is the way it really happened.
I did do my best to smile a charming smile, but when I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out Kermit, his oversized plastic green head caught on the lip of the pocket. I gave a little yank, forcing his head back, and ejecting Pez candies all over the table and the floor in front of a wide-eyed Elisabeth Elliot.
Thinking quickly, I turned back to my date and blurted, “Give me Gonzo! Give me Gonzo!”
I’m sure only half a second passed between Gonzo’s appearance and Elisabeth Elliot’s response, but for me it seemed like time had slowed to a near-complete halt. There I sat, Gonzo in hand, smiling a lunatic smile at one of my faith heroes, and waiting to see if the rest of the incident would play out like it had in my mind.
It would not.
“What… is… that?” Elisabeth Elliot asked, staring down at poor Gonzo as if I were holding a squirming cockroach and not a beloved children’s character.
“It’s Pez,” I stammered. “It’s candy from a cartoon character’s head.”
Seeing that I wasn’t going anywhere until she had pulled a little tablet of candy from under Gonzo’s chin, Elisabeth Eliot reached over and pulled one out, and smiled at me. I’m sure it must have been the same smile she reserved for delusional men on the subway who insisted that they were actually the President of France.
I thanked her, scooped up the other Pez candies with as much dignity as I could muster, and walked past my giggling friends, my only solace being the knowledge that as bad as that had been, my friends had to go after me.
A few years later, I was studying for my Master’s of Divinity degree at Beeson Divinity School on the campus of Samford University. Beeson is an excellent institution of higher learning, a terrific training ground for people looking to go into ministry or pursuing higher education. It is a place of rigorous academic study, and challenging theological settings.
And somehow, I had been elected president of the student body.
Being president of the student body gave me unique access to visiting dignitaries, including Elisabeth Elliot, who spoke in our chapel in May 1996.
At that time, I was dating a young woman from Kazakhstan who was at Beeson working on her Master’s in Theological Studies. I’d told her my Elisabeth Elliot story, and thought that Mrs. Elliot’s visit was an opportune time to impress my girlfriend by seeing how well Elisabeth Elliot remembered that crazy kid in Charleston.
Following her talk, Elisabeth Elliot and her husband Lars sat in the student center, and they welcomed people to come up and talk with her. With my Kermit Pez firmly in hand, and with my girlfriend beside me, I approached the table and asked if we could sit. She smiled and gestured to the empty chairs.
“Mrs. Elliot, you probably don’t remember me, but a few years ago back in Charleston I heard you speak. Afterwards, I was able to talk with you, and when I did, I embarrassed myself by offering you a Pez. Well, since that time, I’ve had a fantastic time telling people that story, and so as a sign of my gratitude, I want to offer you something.”
I glanced at Lars. He didn’t move this time. But he was listening.
I sat Kermit on the table between us, and smiled.
“I’d like to offer you a Pez.”
This time, I was completely confident. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky, my supportive girlfriend sat beside me, and certainly Elisabeth Elliot would remember the incident from before. In my mind, she would laugh, say something like, “I remember you!”, take a Pez, and the story would have come full circle.
I would be a hero, once again. The dean of the seminary would put me on cover of the next newsletter, Christianity Today would put me on their list of the 29 under 29 most influential Christians, and Steven Curtis Chapman would call me to ask if I could teach him a thing or two about playing the guitar.
That was what happened in my mind.
Following is the way it really happened.
“What… is… that?” Elisabeth Elliot asked. Again.
“It’s Pez,” I stammered. “It’s candy from a cartoon character’s head.” Again.
Elisabeth Elliot smiled a very patient smile, and again, she took a Pez. Without having any candies to clean up, it was easy to stand, say thank you, and leave.
“I’ll stay a little longer, if that’s okay,” my girlfriend asked, and Mrs. Elliot nodded. I backed away, wondering what my girlfriend wanted to talk to Elisabeth Elliot about.
They talked quite a while, and my girlfriend ended up invited to Elisabeth Elliot’s hotel for breakfast the next morning to continue the conversation. Turns out they talked about me quite a bit, and they discussed my girlfriend’s frustration that she didn’t know where things were going with us. That I seemed afraid to commit. That I seemed to be obsessed with Pez.
Looking back, I realize that while it might be exhausting to have people come to you constantly, pouring out their hearts, looking for guidance and wisdom at their times of great need, Elisabeth Elliot did this for years, gladly and inexhaustibly. My only way of understanding this is that she must have felt such gratitude towards her Savior, who met her in the jungles of Ecuador at her time of greatest need, and that it was the least she could do.
And so I am not sad that Elisabeth Elliot has died. I’m grateful for her life, for the legacy she left behind, and for the witness that she will continue to be to countless individuals through her writings and her story.
And I smile when I think that she is with Jim and the others, missionaries and Huaroni alike, worshipping and praising the Lord whom she loved so much.
How could I be sad?
By the way, I don’t know the details of the conversation between my girlfriend and Elisabeth Elliot, but I do know that it was a very important conversation.
That girlfriend has been my wife now for nearly twenty years, so it was a very important conversation, indeed.
What started out as a normal family trip to the Festival of Asarata ended as a nightmare for a gopher family from Underhill Fields.
Daggy Gingerroot, an unassuming gopher if ever there was one, had been enjoying the annual festival with his family of four when he noticed a gaggle of geese nodding their long necks his way.
He heard them honking out something about “The Creep”.
“Sure I was offended by it,” said Gingerroot. “But it’s the festival, right? You kind of expect to be called names.”
As he and his mate and two young ones continued on their way towards the Great Tree to look for figs, the gopher noticed something he didn’t expect: more and more animals looking at him angrily.
And then the threats started.
“The first one was this big mongoose, who bumped me as he waddled past.” Gingerroot recalled, visibly shaken. “He growled “Creep” at me, and when I looked crossly at him, he said – ”
We can’t reprint here what the mongoose said.
For Gingerroot and his family, things just went from bad to worse.
“Some of the animals started following us, hissing and growling,” he said. “They were so angry, and I had no idea why!”
And then the yelling started. And then the throwing.
“They threw rotten figs at first, and then clumps of dirt and rock,” Gingerroot grew more emotional as he relived the horrible experience. “It was all I could do to get my young ones away from that mob. I had no idea why I’d been singled out!”
The little gopher family just managed to make it to their rented burrow before the angry crowd could reach them, and they hunkered down until nightfall. When it was quiet, Gingerroot crept out to see if the coast was clear.
“I came upon a beaver couple, also hiding. They’d experienced the same thing. And then some squirrels. They’d all been attacked by angry mobs, all called “Creeps” and other terrible things. It was baffling!”
Mr. Gingerroot and his small furry friends were all victims of a new forest phenomenon – creep shaming.
It all started when this was posted on Furbook:
But just who is the marmot in the picture? That’s the question begging for an answer. He is apparently a groundhog, and he’s allegedly one of the con-artists famed for working the annual festival.
We managed to catch up with Kid Duffy, the brave and noble Enforcer of the wild dogs, and asked him what was being done about the groundhog threat.
“We know exactly who it is,” Kid Duffy replied. “We’re taking care of it.”
This reporter was greatly relieved to know that the wild dogs have matters firmly in hand. Once again, the forest is safe because of wild dog diligence and fortitude. All hail Blonger, Leader of the Wild Dogs!
Meanwhile, because of this irresponsible post and a sad case of mistaken identity, Daggy Gingerroot was forced to prematurely remove his family from the festival, days before it was over. And reportedly, he has since lost his job as third burrower of Underhill Fields as a result of the incident.
We caught up with Mr. Gingerroot at his burrow, where he and his family have been hiding out ever since the debacle happened. He’s not sure when his life will return to normal.
“It’s not even a gopher in that picture! It’s clearly a groundhog!” Gingerroot exclaimed, frustrated and upset. “And the Unicorn help that groundhog if they ever figure out who he is…”
His voice trailing off, a despondent Daggy Gingerroot disappeared back down into his subterranean home in Underhill Fields, his life changed forever.
I’m OUTRAGED!!! Today, I went to The Rock to see what the crazies were preaching, and HE WAS BACK! That creep from the tree yesterday was now at the The Rock, AGAIN trying to take advantage of people. This time the nutjob was telling everyone some garbage about the end of the world, and he even mentioned UNICORNS. That’s right. Unicorns.
I was able to get another pic, but people we HAVE to do something about this pest!!! He makes me feel very unsafe, and again, the wild dogs aren’t interested. (Personally, I think they’re on the take, but PLEASE don’t tell them I said that.)
This is going to be a short report tonight. To put it lightly, day four was tough. I’m just ten percent of the way into the 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, and today I hit a wall. For the first time, I felt like I couldn’t do this – just limit myself to the things produced by Christians for Christians, because the options were just so limited (especially living overseas) and so often poorly made.
I know that yesterday I was finding the positives in the situation, saying something like “at least there are Christians who are creating,” but today I’m over that. Today, I’m thinking that just creating isn’t enough.
We need to be creating better and better things.
This is especially an issue for those Christians out there who don’t see the big deal in what I’m doing because they only consume Christian media every day anyway. There are three problems I see with creating such a bubble for yourself. First, this isn’t what we were called to do. “Go out into the world”, remember? How can we do that if we spend all our time in our Christian sub-culture bubble? Second, people in the bubble tend to get used to slapping the “Christian” label on everything, thinking that the label alone gives something value. But slapping a “Christian” or “faith-based” label on something doesn’t automatically make that thing good. Usually, it just sullies the label. Third, dealing specifically with filmmakers living in the bubble, I know of a few Christian filmmakers who never watch secular movies. My question for them is – if you don’t watch good films, how can you hope to create good films? I just don’t get that.
The thing that saddens me about all of this is that I know that there are so many talented Christian artists who could be making great media, great art, but they’re forced to tailor their work for those Christians living in the bubble, Christians who aren’t interested in being challenged by what they consume. Their audience wants to grow spiritually, but they only want it to happen by having their beliefs reinforced. They want to be told that their interpretation of the Bible is the right one, that the idea they have about God is without error, and they’re uncomfortable with the idea of exposing themselves to alternative notions – or even looking at their own ideas in alternative ways. This means they aren’t necessarily experiencing growth of any kind, but more likely just entrenchment.
And that depresses me on this, the fourth day.
So, with all this in mind, I feel like I’m having to push through this day like I’m ensconsed in some bizarre alien membrane. I’m trapped, trying to push my way out.
Today, Christian media is not making me feel free, but entrapped.
I’m hoping tomorrow will be a better day.
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Lifeway Research recently released a study that examined the use of Christian media. The results showed that the vast majority of Christian media is consumed by – hold onto your hats for this, folks – Christians.
This doesn’t come as a surprise. Media will typically be consumed by the target audience, and in this case, why would a person who is not a Christian care to listen to a Christian podcast? Why would they be interested in reading a book about Christianity? Why would they spend their time watching Christian television programs?
It seems like the logical thing to do here is to circle the wagons. After all, if the Christian family is consuming most Christian media, then we should just keep creating media for the family! This is how business works, isn’t it? You identify your target audience, and then push your product for that audience.
Given, the study does show that some of our media is being consumed by people outside the church – like a positive form of collateral damage – but we should count those people as frosting on the cake and keep on doing what we do when we do what we do.
But hold on, hit the brakes, stop the engines, turn off the lights… there’s a slight problem with all that.
Did Jesus tell his disciples in Matthew 28:19 to “go back into the church, close the doors, and make disciples”?
No. Of course not. He said “Go into all the world…” Go. Get out of your comfort zone. Stop naval gazing and get out into the world where people need the message of hope that we find in the story of Jesus.
Christian media should deal with finding the lost, and not just massaging the found. What are the “Christianese” words for this? Witnessing? Sharing? Evangelizing? We’re supposed to be engaging with the world outside of the church, not just circling our wagons to protect the women and children.
Look at it this way. Imagine your church supports a missionary family living in some foreign country. The missionary family comes home on furlough, and visits your church to share about the progress of their work in this foreign country.
The missionary husband sets up a powerpoint presentation in the fellowship hall after the pot-luck dinner, and starts showing slides of the family’s work.
“We’re so grateful to be serving in our host country, and blessed to be able to share our work with you today.”
The missionary smiles and turns to the screen.
“In this picture, we’re having some missionary neighbors over for dinner. We like to have other missionaries over for dinner regularly. This next picture shows us at our bi-weekly Bible study with some other missionary families. Oh, you’ll love this one – it’s a picture of us worshipping on Sunday morning at our church, which is only for missionaries. Hmm…. this is our neighbor who isn’t a missionary… I’m not sure how that picture got in there. Ah, here! This next picture is better – it’s our missionary office, where we work with other missionaries. Finally, here’s a picture of our kids going to their missionary-kid school. It’s missionary run, taught, and attended. They just love it there.”
That missionary probably wouldn’t be supported by the church for much longer.
So, we want our missionaries to engage with the culture around them, but for some reason, we seem to be perfectly comfortable that Christian media is only reaching other Christians.
And Christian media isn’t even doing that very well!
Take Christian movies for example – one of the categories where the results were considered the most encouraging. The Lifeway study shows that four out of ten people said that they watched a Christian movie in the last year.
Four out of ten? That’s pretty amazing!
Well, it seems like an encouraging number until you remember that eighty-three percent of the American population identifies as Christian.
Eight out of ten people consider themselves Christian, and four out of ten people watched a Christian movie last year.
Let that sink in. Less than half the Christian population of America watched at least one Christian movie last year.
No. Of course not. (Although sending Vischer snarky letters about his ukelele might be warranted…) There’s nothing wrong with producing media for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with producing media for small segments of ourselves. People do that every day, all over the world, in all walks of life.
But as Christians, we shouldn’t be content with that.
So, if you are a person interested in Christian media and interested in changing those statistics reported by Lifeway Research, here are 6 (+2) things that Christian media must do better to catch the attention of those people who normally wouldn’t care.
1. Be Professional.
If something is good in media, it’s not because it is good by accident, or because someone prayed for it to be good and God miraculously made it so. Things are good in media because professionals have been hired to make them good. Christian film producers have finally started to realize this, raising enough money to enable them to hire pros to help shoot their films, and the result? Christian films are finally starting to look like well-shot films. People in the world outside the church respect professionalism.
2. Be Excellent.
Maybe this is a part of being professional, but if you’re involved in Christian media, then you shouldn’t cut corners. If you’re a self-published writer, then revise, revise, revise. Give yourself time to do the best you can possibly do with your efforts. Want to be a filmmaker? Cut your teeth on shorts before moving to features. Watch a LOT of movies – and not only Christian made movies. Read scripts. No matter what area of media you feel drawn to, take the time to become excellent. Say what you will about the world, but the world appreciates and is drawn to excellence.
3. Be Creative.
This is where we often drop the ball with Christian media. In our rush to get our message out, we tell sloppy stories. We create one-dimensional characters. We allow our faith to handcuff us, which is not why we have our faith. “It was for freedom you were set free…” Remember? That includes the freedom to be creative. Try to look at the world in a different way, in a real and authentic way. Especially when you consider those people who believe differently than you do. We call God the Creator, not just because he created everything, but because He is also so incredibly creative. Go, and do likewise, because people outside the church are attracted to true creativity.
4. Be Intelligent.
We’ve all seen the near-constant parade of apparently unintelligent Christians in media. People hosting programs who have trouble putting together intelligible sentences; faith-based scripts that seem not well thought-through or properly edited; embarrassingly discourteous or rude commenters on the internet; self-published novels that are so plotless and pointless that they make one wish that self-publishing were as hard and expensive as it used to be.
Our reputation for being unintelligent has been well earned by these things and much more. Write intelligently, direct intelligently, comment intelligently, create intelligently. God may use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, but that doesn’t mean we should aim to be fools. Christians in media are the front lines for changing the intelligence perception with the media they create.
5. Be Ingenious.
Christian media is known for trying to take something the world has done and recreate it in a faith-friendly way. The world gives us 50 Shades of Grey, Christian media reacts with Old Fashioned. There’s a good article about this on Vox, written by Brandon Ambrosino. I’d also recommend the article he cites by Alissa Wilkinson.
The point is that Christians in media need to be ingenious. We should lead rather than follow, set the standard rather than chasing after the latest fad or trend. We should aim to take the world by surprise with our ingenious and unique creations.
6. Be Honest.
Finally, one of the best weapons we have at our disposal as Christians in media is honesty. As we interact with people who aren’t in the faith, they should see this about us – as we interact with the media, they should notice this about us. As we write, direct, act, talk, sing, produce, film, record, edit, draw, or whatever it is we do, people should recognize it in us.
They should talk about it behind our backs.
And if they do? That’s okay. We should have nothing to hide, and no reason to hide. We don’t have to pretend to have it all together, because we know that we don’t. We don’t have to act like our families are perfect, because we know that they aren’t. We don’t have to act like we have all the answers, because we know that we don’t. And that’s okay.
What we do have is Jesus.
And if you’ll pardon my brief use of Christainese, we have his forgiveness, his mercy, and his grace. And He gives us the ability to live openly, transparently, and honestly – in life and in the media we create.
And that is how we will impact the world.
And now the (bonus +2).
1. Drop the Secret Language.
Christianese – the secret language of Christianity. The moment you fall into using the secret language, you lose potential interest from people who don’t speak it. If your Christian media is inundated with Christianese, you need to make some changes, or you might as well just create your media in Klingon for all the good it will do you.
2. Give the End Times a Rest.
What do we know? Jesus will return. How? When? We have no real idea – just theories and interpretations. That means that our Rapture books and movies are just the Christian versions of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Road, or any of the other dystopsian end-of-the-world stories you want to pick. And they’re not nearly as compelling, well told, or well made.
Can we just give it a rest for a while?
(Actually, having said that, a Christian dystopsian story that absolutely nothing to do with the Rapture or the anti-Christ could be a really interesting read.)