Written: 26 July, 2000

[This post was written in response to a person who mentioned that they participated in a "burning" -- where Christians would gather to throw ungodly items into the bonfire.]

One of my favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne stories is "Earth's Holocaust" which concerns a bonfire.

Humanity decides that they will build a bonfire and throw all the evils of the world into it, thus freeing them from the bad influence and bringing on a new age of enlightenment. They throw into the fire things such as guns, liquor, instruments used for executions, literature, and finally the Bible itself. But the moral of the story is that all these things are not truly destroyed and are but outward signs on what lies within the human heart. Throwing it into the fire won't get rid of it unless it's first been driven from the heart of men.

"The Heart--the Heart--there was the little yet boundless sphere, wherein existed the original wrong, of which the crime and misery of this outward world were merely types. Purify that inner sphere; and the many shapes of evil that haunt the outward, and which now seem almost our only realities, will turn to shadowy phantoms, and vanish of their own accord."

You can read the whole short story at

Having said that, I think it's a good idea to get rid of something if you feel it's an obstacle in your faith. I think the best way to get rid of it is just to throw it in the trash, though.

The problem with the bonfire thing is that it gets misunderstood by other people. It makes them think that "you" (Christians) are wanting to take things out of their lives, that you want to prevent them from being able to read or listen to what they choose to. It reinforces the idea that Christians are intolerant people who want to force their views on others. The bonfire image also brings to mind things like the burning of Joan of Arc and the burning of witches in times past, acts in which self-proclaimed Christians did un-Christian acts in the name of Christ.

The thing to remember is that we should try to be sensitive to other people's feelings because we don't want to send them the wrong message, to inadvertantly push people away from Christ by our actions. Words like "sensitive" and "tolerance" make many conservatives and anti-PC folks gag, but basically it's about trying to see things from the other fellow's perspective, which is consistent with the Christian idea of wanting to appreciate things beyond one's own self. The Confederate flag issue is a good example. If a proud Southerner wanted to march down the street waving the Confederate flag, I think it would be helpful for him to try and understand why other people might take offense at his action. Is he representing himself in a positive, appealing way by stridently waving it in their faces?

Sometimes I think we forget that we Christians may see things one way while non-Christians may see it in a totally different way, and be alarmed and frightened by what they see!

For example, I received a new flyer in the mail from the Family Christian Stores, advertising products for the "back to school" season. The theme of the catalog is "Extreme Faith" and a text introduction challenges readers in "letting your faith make an extreme difference." The text also says that Jesus "taught some radically extreme ideas."

This is the kind of language that would alarm or turn off your average non-Christian, I think, who perhaps already identifies the church with "the Christian right." Many Americans were alarmed by Barry Goldwater's 1964 speech where he defended extremism by saying that in the pursuit of virture, extremism was no vice. Most listeners would conclude that that is more than just rhetoric, more than just an ideal, an unattainable goal, and see such "extremist virtue" as a threat to their enjoyment of their life, their pursuit of happiness. It looks like the extremist will enforce his will on others "by any means necessary."

So, non-Christians would probably see this "Extreme Faith" catalog in the wrong way. It's aimed at Christians, and most Christians are no where near being "extreme" in their faith. The "radical suggestions for letting your faith make an extreme difference" include such "radical" ideas as reading a Christian book in study hall or wearing a Christian shirt to school. Big whoop. (Well, it also suggests going on a mission trip, a bigger deal.)

The problem is that Christians are not "extreme" enough in their faith and yet they have the reputation of being TOO extreme. Why is this? I think that it may be because of actions like the bonfire thing. It comes across to non-Christians as being like the return of the Dark Ages, whereas the Christians who are participating in it see it as an opportunity to publicly and dramatically remove a temptation that is in their life. It's a way of openly saying, "I choose Christ, and I reject _____" (fill in the blank). It's a personal decision which gains more dramatic purpose when others are doing the same. But to the non-Christian, it looks like a reactionary mob who would deprive them the choice to read or see what they like.

Look at the "Death to Disco" movement circa 1979. They held rallies where they delighted in destroying disco records because they favored good ol' rock & roll. But how did that make people who liked disco feel? Nowadays, that "death to disco" movement gets accused of being racist and homophobic, because disco was seen as more black and gay-friendly than rock music was. People can see these things in different ways, depending on their perspective.