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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Mainstreaming malarkey

A lesson from Y2K still applies

Editor’s Note: As Joel Belz recovers from a broken femur, we’re reprinting this column, a version of which originally published on Jan. 15, 2000.

The order for a classified ad in this issue of WORLD arrived promptly the morning of Jan. 1. It read:

WILL SELL AT LOSS: Semi-automatic pistol, attractive “fish” logo. Also 500 rounds 99 mm expanding point ammo. After April 1, 2000.

The April 1 reference was the tip that the ad was tongue-in-cheek. But all joking aside, even before the old year had run out, it had become deflatingly clear that the whole Y2K industry was going to have to shut down in most unceremonious fashion. Even those of us who had predicted it wouldn’t amount to much had overstated the case. 

The whole Christian community has egg on its face. And that includes WORLD Magazine. Editorially, we repeatedly expressed our doubts about the likelihood of serious Y2K fallout. But we accepted dozens of ads that sometimes made our pages look like the journal of some far-out cult. At that, we rejected a fair number of ads that would have made us look even wackier.

To be sure, it wasn’t even just evangelical Christians in general who scurried about like Chicken Little chirping about the falling sky. The secular media joined that chorus in a major way, and even after Jan. 1 kept trying to make themselves look good, or at least not quite so bad, with continued warnings about what might happen sometime in the scary future.

That’s when Christians need to be clear about how we’re different. For us, the future isn’t scary.

Let the rest of the world conjure up every worry it can imagine. Let unbelievers stew that this globe is spinning out of control. But we are the ones whose hearts are not supposed to be troubled. We believe in God, and we believe also in Jesus, who is God come in the flesh to demonstrate how Jehovah can enter time and space and make all things certain. That is precisely what He means to do with and for His people—and we are most faithless when we act otherwise.

The embarrassment is that we so regularly act otherwise. Christian bookstores spill over into the aisles with apocalyptic scare stories. Never mind that the authors and the publishers protest that they really mean to comfort folks. It’s the scariness that sells.

But what sells at Christian bookstores, and on Christian radio, and with mailing lists of Christian people—and alas, perhaps even with some readers of Christian magazines—may well be precisely what turns off those who are skeptical of the Christian faith. When we are portrayed as perpetual worrywarts, what is attractive about that which we say we believe?

When ABC-TV News interviewed a small band of “Christian” believers on the Mount of Olives at midnight on Dec. 31, all the promises of the Bible took a media shellacking—just because a few confused folks insisted their interpretation of Scripture was right, everyone else was wrong, and Christ would indeed return right at that moment to that very mountaintop. When the phony prophecy didn’t come off as predicted, every one of us who points to the Bible as a reliable source took it on the chin.

But it isn’t just the cultish few who engage in such behavior. We Christians have a tendency to mainstream such malarkey, perhaps partly because it proves to be such good business. Go to the exhibit halls of the annual conventions of the National Religious Broadcasters, the Christian Booksellers Association, and others, and you’ll be tempted to pray that Christ would come thundering in for a Cleansing of the Temple, Part II.

I don’t pretend it’s an easy issue. The ad pages of our own magazine remind me how we walk a tightrope between inappropriate censorship on the one hand and goofy irresponsibility on the other.

But when our goofiness starts turning people off to the very truth we want to convey, something’s terribly amiss. The big media can afford to walk away after Y2K and say, “So what? We missed it. Let’s go on to the next big story.” But the credibility of the big media was already suspect. They had no ultimately critical message in any case. For those of us who claim to have an eternally important message, getting a story like Y2K wrong does grave damage to everything else we say.