Several weeks ago one of the voices on The White Horse Inn, and I believe it was host Michael Horton, suggested that there are some evangelical authors whose books appear in the Christian Living section of the bookstore and/or have a DDC number near 248.4 [link] who are using pen names between Meyer and Osteen.
Since Horton didn’t mention anyone by name I am tempted to believe he was just repeating idle vicious gossip, but I would prefer to be wrong. So I will pay a whole dollar to the first person to spot and verify one of these authors, limit ten total. To claim please send me evidence that some author is using a pen name and has a book with a DDC of 248.*. I will also consider evidence of a pen name and a snapshot of a book in the appropriate section of a chain bookstore, subject to some kind of field check.
I am several months behind on The White Horse Inn and lately I’ve been trying to catch up. I’d like to point readers to the first part of a recent two-parter [link], where host Michael Horton interviews Tullian Tchividjian as part of the latter’s book tour.
This episode is notable because it is one of the rare instances where Reformed types actually talk about sanctification. If I had to make a list of the reasons I’m not Reformed, it would go something like this: contemporary Reformed types have an explanation of sanctification, even a theology of sanctification, but none of them actually have seemed to have experienced it.
As I listen to the exchange here, it sounds to me like host and guest agree that sanctification is a matter of stopping certain sins, as if that were the sum total of sanctification. Tchividjian is one of the rare Reformed types who will countenance the Pauline phrase “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” but then both of them dive down the usual Reformed rabbit hole of reclassifying this working out until it is unrecognizable.
I will admit that I come to discussions of sanctification with the taint of some kind of Holiness perspective that suggests that “justification is God’s work; sanctification is ours” and the notion that sanctification results in a person having victory over particular sins and becoming in some quantitative sense less sinful. And I tend to hear Horton and Tchividjian reacting to that perspective. But neither that perspective nor its opposite is right, and I don’t understand why these two don’t sound like they understand that. They sound to me like they’re following the usual pattern of setting up a straw man with beliefs no one actually has, knocking it over, and putting nothing in its place.
Also: perhaps I’m mishearing, but it sounds to me like to every spiritual problem Tchividjian proposes a solution that involves buying a book he’s written, is writing, or is planning to write. It might lead one to wonder if there was such a thing as Christianity before the invention of movable type.
I’m not a fan of Frank Turk; I think he’s condescending and occasionally mean-spirited, and I generally find the tone of the Pyromaniacs blog to be self-congratulatory and sarcastic (yeah yeah: pot/kettle/black), and his ongoing “open letters” series to be beyond the pale.
So intellectual honesty requires that I own up to this: I think he’s on to something in his open letter to Michael Horton of the White Horse Inn and other outlets [link]. Turk’s post really could have been edited for brevity and clarity; if I had to do it I might just have pulled this quote:
There is much to be gained from the Law/Gospel, imperative/indicative distinction in Scripture, but not everything is resolved by it. And one of the things which is not resolved by it is what manner of people the Gospel makes us – which is actually part and parcel of the Good News.
This could partly be summarized as “there’s not just Law and Gospel; there’s also sanctification.” Or words to that effect. I’d recommend reading the whole article and the comments at the link above; it’s a mix of “good Frank Turk” and “bad Frank Turk” and is worthwhile even for those of us who read him rarely and as such are tempted to scorn.
Ian at the Irreducible Complexity blog offers 7 steps to starting a megachurch [link]; unlike most steps, they’re paragraph-length, so I’m going to list them by opening sentence:
- First think about yourself.
- Get up to date demographic information for your city.
- Plan to run a commissioning service for three months down the track.
- Hire a great graphic design company (or better yet a talented religious designer willing to work on the cheap).
- Recognize that most of your churchgoers will be currently attending other churches (you’ll typically have less than 1/5 new converts).
- Make sure your first year of church is super-professional.
- From the very first service you need to be thinking about revenue.
The first bullet might be better stated “You (as pastor) are the church; project a persona that is professional and powerful;” the third as “build your initial inner circle from disaffected ex-members of other churches’ inner circles.” The others read pretty well as summaries of their paragraphs.
This is his summary of what he’s learned from various sources regarding megachurches (he provides a bibliography) including works by Scott Thumma (editor of the Hartford Institute megachurch database) and Dave Travis, the megachurch and leadership expert we met a couple of days ago over at Intelligence Squared. The author is a self-professed atheist, and his ear for the jargon isn’t quite right (church people don’t talk about “how God is going to change the world” in so many words, do they?), but otherwise he’s totally believable; e.g. either he or his primary sources understand that asking people to pray for you and your ministry is an effective way of getting buy-in; church growth runs the risk of being “basic marketing, really;” etc.
So for the rest of this post let’s take it as read that his is a fair model of a megachurch: churches are in a sense multilevel marketing schemes; churches need pastors who are powerful leaders; every existing church represents a ready pool of dissatisfied church-goers; marketing is important; “God at work in this church” is the product; etc. What good does this model do us?
Most of the time when I hear complaints and criticisms sound wrong somehow. I’d offer Mollie Hemingway’s points in the I2 debate as a case in point (on further reflection she’s not just accusing megachurches of failing to be Lutheran; she’s accusing them of being (gasp) evangelical). Michael Horton’s (and others’) repeated flogging of “moralistic therapeutic deism” being another. These approaches seem to me to share a common flaw: they’re affirmations of values that contrast somewhat with what one might find at a given megachurch, but they’re not necessarily right. They may be just another high-sounding bunch of buzzwords and slogans.
So I think rather than going for the easy answer (“only go to this type of church”) I’ll suggest questions to ask. Each of them doesn’t necessarily point to a fatal flaw in a church, but taken together they constitute a sort of megachurchy inventory.
- Every church tells a story about itself; what story is your church telling? Is the story true?
- How does your church communicate? Is your church engaging in a marketing exercise?
- Is your pastor basically honest? Is he a man of integrity? Is he the same person out of the pulpit as he is in the pulpit?
- Does the pastor spend time in the pulpit telling you what a great church this is? Be careful; learn to tell the difference between reflexive pride and crafted message. They’re both problematic, but they’re indicative of different things.
- What sort of people attend your church? Does your church have a power clique? What distinguishes the insiders from the outsiders? Every church has a group that’s there looking for a spectacle; at your church what is this group looking for? How many of the people at your church became Christians there? How do they describe the process of becoming Christians?
- What sort of a story does the church tell you about money? How does it describe the money it takes in? How does it describe the money it spends? Is the church accountable for its money?
- Is your church slick and packaged? Is it always on message? Can you put that message in plain language?
Neither of these lists should be taken to be definitive, but I hope they’re helpful. I wish I’d had lists like these a couple of years ago. Or ten years ago. I’ve watched churches before and gotten a nameless uneasy feeling (“why is that man standing there saying what he’s saying?”) and it would have been helpful to have a megachurch marketing model in hand if just for comparison’s sake.
It’s finally time to talk about podcasts I currently listen to. Please remember that as a former fundamentalist I don’t feel the need to listen only to content I agree with. Here they are in more or less alphabetical order by name:
- The Dividing Line with James White; this is the only one of the bunch that isn’t primarily a radio show. White is a self-styled Reformed Baptist apologist and is apparently making a living as an author and speaker; so far as I know he isn’t compensated for his work as an elder at his church, and he isn’t currently teaching anywhere. White is probably the most plain-spoken of this bunch, the least given to jargon, and the least caught up in his own worldview. He’s a self-taught expert on Mormonism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, “KJV-Onlyism” (Ruckmanism), and textual variants. He’s also kind of a jerk, and his harangues can get a bit old after a while, especially when he’s playing excerpts from one of his upcoming debate opponents and offering commentary. On the other hand, he does at least listen to his opponents, which sets him apart from much of the field, and makes an attempt to understand their point of view. And he seems to understand that he’s part of a tradition, too.
- Issues Etc. with Todd Wilken. This is a former LCMS media product that got turned loose a couple of years ago; I’ve only heard the IE side of the story, where they claim to have been let go because they’re too Lutheran, not on board with creeping seeker sensitivity in the LCMS, etc. Wilken mostly follows the hidebound Lutheran line that not much interesting has been said since Martin Luther died, and sometimes his guests are even more conservative than he is. I tuned in after hearing repeatedly from Lutherans at Michael Newnham’s Phoenix Preacher blog that the LCMS had it all sorted out. Wilken rarely surprises me since I know where he’s coming from: he doesn’t ask fair questions, he only asks questions that lead to a Lutheran response. In that way he reminds me of some of the people I hear on Sacred Heart Radio. I really don’t understand why Christians who aren’t Lutherans appear on his show. He apparently dislikes evangelicals generally, and rarely represents their views fairly and typically refers to them as “Pop American Evangelicals” or what they believe as “Pop American Christianity.” I get the impression he doesn’t know any of these people he labels and doesn’t understand them at all. I dislike Wilken and think he gives the LCMS a bad name, but he has interesting guests and creates a safe place for them to say things I’m surprised anyone says.
- Renewing Your Mind with R. C. Sproul; Sproul talks a fairly straightforward Reformed line and lightly covers a wide range of topics. Each episode is 26:25 long, and the first 6 and last 5 minutes can be safely skipped because they’re either pleas for money or announcer boilerplate. In the remaining 15 minutes Sproul can be relied on to vary very little from the standard Reformed line. He’s up front about the fact that he’s Reformed, but (unlike James White) doesn’t seem to realize just how deeply into his own tradition he is. Virtually every episode gives me a real take-away, a morsel to chew on, but most of the time is spent waiting for that morsel. His son R. C. Sproul Jr. creeps me out; I don’t understand why Sr. has Jr. on his show, and I consider Jr. to be Exhibit A in an argument against sons following their fathers into the ministry.
- Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley; this is an hour-long debate-format show from the UK that traditionally pits a Christian against a non-believer of some sort: an atheist, someone from another faith, an apostate or a self-styled eclectic whatsit. There are typically four segments: introduction, a basic, typically civil back-and-forth between two parties, the addition of a third party that is sometimes on one side or the other, sometimes not, and listener mail/comment. I rarely listen to an entire episode. There’s definitely a UK focus to the show, and lots of attention is given to issues involving and surrounding Richard Dawkins and the other UK New Atheists. Rare among Christian podcasts in that Brierley lets non-believers speak for and explain themselves.
- The White Horse Inn with Michael Horton et al. This is the dreaded preacher’s roundtable show, featuring men from several Protestant traditions, at least a couple former evangelicals. I tend to agree with Horton that there is something terribly wrong with contemporary American evangelical Christianity, but I’m not sure that he’s got it entirely (or necessarily accurately) diagnosed as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Because this is a pastor’s roundtable they rarely really disagree with one another, so there is typically a lot of finger-pointing at absent parties, and not surprisingly the solutions they propose tend to involve more people attending their churches, listening to and agreeing with them, accepting their authority, etc.
There is definitely a Reformed/Calvinist/Lutheran flavor to the items above; I guess I would have to say that across this spectrum there’s a common belief that something’s terribly wrong with contemporary American evangelical Christianity (especially where it intersects with Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions), and that it can be fixed by leaving evangelicalism for these traditions. I tend to agree that there’s a problem, but that they’re definitely not the solution.
I hate to say this, but I get the impression that I’m hearing a monologue from a dead church directed at a dying church, and I don’t know what to make of it.
I hesitate to wade into this because it is such a touchy subject and I barely trust myself not to get on a high horse here, but here goes. I think if I had to boil down the things that trouble me about Christians (corporately and individually as I actually see them, rather than the models I read about in books) I think I’d limit myself to two or three:
- Despite Pauline promises to the contrary, Christians are rarely actually transformed in any discernible way.
- Conservative Christians of slightly different traditions hate each other and secretly suspect that the others are not really Christians.
At church this past Sunday I was out in the foyer walking the baby during the sermon, but I overheard the preacher saying, essentially, that recovery groups are often “more like the Church than the Church is,” by which I think he meant that they are more like real communities, care more for one another, treat each other in a context of shared humility, or something like that. My ears always prick up when people make comparisons like this because I know how much some people I knew at the Calvary Chapel I attended several years ago hated Alcoholics Anonymous, and because of Christine Wicker’s claims that the effectiveness of recovery groups represent something of a crisis for Christianity generally and evangelical churches in particular.
I think the basic tension between the two groups is this: doctrinally conservative Christians (want to) take Paul’s description of the Christian as a “new creature” seriously, while recovery groups describe people in recovery as always recovering, never recovered. I’m deeply troubled by the fact that older people who have been Christians a long time rarely get more holy with age; they mostly just get older. It’s almost as if Paul’s new creature were as big a jerk as the old creature.
And a big chunk of being a new jerk apparently involves hating and slandering other Christians. When I was in fundamentalist churches we were pretty sure the Southern Baptists were all going to Hell, as was anyone who harbored the “strange fire” of the Amplified Bible and all other aberrant translations. In fact we weren’t entirely sure about other Independent Baptist churches, even the ones who joined us at summer church camp. At Thomas Road Baptist Church in the early Seventies we were pretty sure everyone who went to the more socially acceptable churches in town were going to Hell. I have it on good authority that some of them returned the favor. At Liberty we were pretty sure anyone who voted for a Democrat was going to Hell; at Calvary Chapel ditto people from The Potter’s House. And of course one of the ugly things the Ergun Caner situation has uncovered yet again is that Calvinists have their suspicions about everyone else, and conservative evangelicals, Arminian per se or not, at best have their doubts about Calvinists. I’ve even heard Todd Wilken and one of his Reformed guests (Michael Horton? I don’t recall) agree that one of them wouldn’t offer the other Communion, and the other agree that he wouldn’t take the offer if it were made.
And of course the few people who are dedicated to their tradition who bother to notice the “Mere Christianity” people hate them too.
I suppose these two problems are interrelated, or the latter is a byproduct of the former. I’m not sure.
Wikipedia has a better article and a better list of distinctives at the article Fundamentalist Christianity, and notes the intertwined history of Baptists and Presbyterians in the history of twentieth-century fundamentalism. The list of distinctives is a bit different, and notes the fracture of fundamentalism as a cultural force into various streams across different denominations. Here’s the list of distinctives as best I can make them out:
- Inerrancy of the Scriptures
- Historicity of the Virgin Birth of Jesus
- Deity of Jesus Christ
- Doctrine of substitutionary atonement by God’s grace through human faith
- Historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus
- Authenticity of miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, including healing, deliverance, and second coming
- Rejection of the documentary hypothesis (the composite authorship of e.g. the Pentateuch)
- Separatism on the basis of doctrinal purity
- Rejection of ecumenical efforts (including ecumenical political efforts)
The article describes a basic fundamentalist movement across various denominations as a reaction to higher criticism that then broke up more or less along denominational lines, into the following groups:
- Reformed confessionalism
- Lutheran confessionalism
- The Heritage movement
And notes (correctly) that Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga precipitated the fundamentalist-evangelical breakup.
After that the article gets a little strange; after having noted that fundamentalists shun ecumenical cooperation on many issues including political issues, it then tries to graft the Christian Right onto this basic root of fundamentalism. I think I would argue that this is not as true as it is presented to be in the article, but that Jerry Falwell left his fundamentalist roots when he started/joined the Christian Right, and while today many fundamentalists take their voting cues from Christian Right leaders, evangelicals are distinguished from fundamentalists by their level of political engagement, fascination with cultural and political issues, etc.
This is the first article I’ve seen that draws a straight line between the sort of Baptist (and Presbyterian) fundamentalism I’m accustomed to and the Reformed/Lutheran confessional movements and suggests a common source in a reaction to higher criticism. It explains a number of things, including why so much of the rhetoric I hear from more modern Reformed/Lutheran types (Michael Horton, Todd Wilken, R. C. Sproul, etc.) sound so familiar from my time in fundamentalism; all three or four groups are still to some degree fighting the same century-old battle against Modernism.
It may also explain why they all have such low opinions of evangelicals.