31 July 2005

On loose cannons and perfunctory research

At the urging of several people, I'm posting this brief reply to the accusations Richard Abanes has made against John MacArthur in an interview Abanes gave to Tim Challies.

My inclination was to ignore the matter until I've had an opportunity to read Abanes's book and evaluate the actual substance of his central complaint against John MacArthur. Unfortunately, virtually all the material referencing MacArthur in the Challies interview is merely innuendo and abusive ad hominem. I don't need to respond to that at all.

But Abanes has also included three broad accusations, which I'll deal with in reverse order as they appear in part 2 of the Challies interview:

  1. He suggests that MacArthur sinned against Rick Warren by not contacting him personally before criticizing The Purpose-Driven Life.
         This is one of the most confusing sections of the Abanes interview. It comes on the heels of a lengthy acknowledgment from Abanes that Matthew 18:15 does not require the critic of a published work to contact the author privately before making his or her criticism public. Yet Abanes also manages to argue that MacArthur was obliged to clear his criticisms with Warren before making them public, because unlike "other critics," who Abanes admits could "never get through to [Warren]," MacArthur "could easily have contacted Warren, as far back as several years ago when MacArthur first started voicing concerns about seeker-sensitive and related issues."
         Indeed, as Abanes is clearly aware, MacArthur's biblical objections against "seeker-sensitive" ministry were published and well known for more than a decade before he ever made any public criticism of Rick Warren by name. Which is to say, MacArthur's objections to Warren's pragmatism are biblical, principled, and philosophical objections, not the sort of personal vendetta against Rick Warren Abanes portrays.
         Furthermore, Abanes himself made no attempt to contact John MacArthur privately before launching his ad hominem broadsides in the Challies interview. Yet Abanes has more of a relationship with MacArthur than MacArthur has with Warren. MacArthur endorsed a book Abanes wrote in 1995. Abanes personally contacted MacArthur to solicit that endorsement, and received it from MacArthur via a personal letter. Abanes sought a second endorsement from MacArthur on a different book last year. MacArthur was unable to supply the endorsement because he did not have time to read the book before the publisher's deadline. But in the process of seeking the endorsement, Abanes wrote to MacArthur more than once. He certainly knows how to get in touch with MacArthur and "could easily have contacted" him but didn't.
         To be clear, I agree with Abanes when he says critics are not obliged to follow the steps outlined in Matthew 18:15-17 before publishing criticism of a Christian leader's published work. So I'm not criticizing Abanes for failing to contact MacArthur. I'm merely pointing out that both his words and his own actions prove that he does not really believe private contact is necessary in such cases. So its very hard to understand his rather forceful criticism of John MacArthur on this point.
         Also, the complaint Abanes makes is actually somewhat ambiguous. (Does his reference to "the aforementioned biblical passages" include Matthew 18, or not?). His actual complaint seems to hinge on his assumption that MacArthur was merely repeating "gossip" about Warren's book. That's where the other two complaints come in.
  2. He claims MacArthur "falsely accus[ed] Warrren of things that Warren has never taught," and specifically that he did this on CNN.
         A complete transcript of what MacArthur said about Warren "on CNN" is here. The program in question (Newsnight with Aaron Brown, March 16, 2005) included a segment that was, in fact, a rather significant misrepresentation of MacArthur's position. The day after the program aired, I posted a statement on the Grace to You website explaining that the main substance of John MacArthur's complaint about The Purpose-Driven Life had been deleted in the editorial process, and the program was a gross misrepresentation of both what MacArthur said and why he said it.
         In other words, MacArthur's comment about Warren's book on CNN was not false, as Abanes alleges. But it was removed from the context where MacArthur had adequately explained what he meant.
         To be more specific: MacArthur made only one statement about the content of Warren's book that was not edited out of the segment. MacArthur said, "What you've got is a feel-good kind of approach. This is telling people exactly what they want to hear, telling people that God agrees with you. God wants you to be what you want to be. And this is pretty heady stuff, to tell somebody that the God of the universe wants them to be exactly what they want to be. But that is not the Christian message." MacArthur did not invent that complaint out of thin air, as Abanes seems to think. It was part of a much more lengthy critique of the self-esteemism inherent in statements like "God wants you to be yourself" (p. 103). Abanes may not agree with MacArthur's criticism of that sort of teaching. (I wouldn't expect him to, given his tendency to affirm whatever Warren says and explain away whatever Warren's critics say.) But his outrage here is all out of proportion to the facts. It also seems somewhat hypocritical, given the fact that Abanes is basing his opinion of MacArthur on statements CNN deliberately removed from their context, and Abanes has apparently made no effort to discover what the actual context really was.
         Abanes may claim he did not know MacArthur felt his statements on the CNN broadcast were deliberately twisted. If that's the case, he has no excuse, especially since his own main complaint is that Warren's critics are guilty of shoddy research. If he had done a simple Google search for the words "macarthur warren newsnight CNN," Google would have given him, ranked in order, a copy of the Grace to You statement, Tim Challies' next-day analysis of "Newsnight," (complete with a trackback link to Jollyblogger's careful deconstruction of CNN's hack-job on MacArthur), and the original of my statement on the Grace to You website (including a link to Justin Taylor's excellent blogpost, "CNN, John MacArthur, and Slander by Suggestion.")
         In other words, the three top links at Google would have put him onto at least five articles showing that MacArthur, not Warren, was the one whose position was distorted by the CNN broadcast—which, after all, did portray The Purpose-Driven Life in an almost completely sympathetic light.
         Abanes himself ought to have done the kind of careful research he calls for. Would he still disagree with MacArthur's position? No doubt. But it would be nice to be able to focus on the doctrinal, biblical, and philosophical difference between our different positions, and keep the harsh personal invective out of the discussion.
  3. He suggests MacArthur has not done his own research and that someone is "feeding him information" about what Warren has written.
         Simply untrue. MacArthur has read both of Warren's major works thoroughly. I have MacArthur's marked-up copy of The Purpose-Driven Church. (I bought him a clean copy and took his annotated one, with his permission.) I've seen his marked-up copy of The Purpose-Driven Life. This sort of baseless conjecture on the part of Abanes is likewise inconsistent with his own call for careful research.

Because there has been misunderstanding about this in other venues, I want to state for the record that I have no complaint with the fact that Tim Challies published this interview. My criticism of certain statements by Richard Abanes should not be construed as criticism of Tim Challies, for whom I have the utmost respect, and who I believe conducted a very helpful interview.

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29 July 2005

BlogSpotting: no longer a mere fad; now a classic tradition

  • Loki Odinsson agrees with me on matters of faith, but not practice. It seems he doesn't like my choice of shirts.
  • Steve "Purple" Hays may think of himself as "a Lilliputian," but he writes Gulliver-length posts. It's no fun to be downhill from one of his word-avalanches.
  • Joe Carter thinks the bad ideas that become fixtures are more deadly than faddism per se. He makes some good points, steps on some toes, and riles a few people. One guy in the comment thread thinks Calvinism is as dangerous as any fad. Another commenter is "really sick to death of the bashing of ... many of the very items that are reaching some of the unreached." Then the critic who hates criticism indignantly asks, "What ideas do you have to reach unreached people?" Joe replies: "Um, share the Gospel? Share Christ? Something like that perhaps?" Interesting discussion, and a revealing window into how rank-and-file evangelicals tend to think about these things. The argument for fads is invariably rooted in the weight of numbers: Look how many people are being "reached" by this. How can you criticize that? Thus almost any fad can become immune from criticism simply by being popular enough. Here's the point I have been trying to make: That's broad-road religion. It's what Jesus preached against. (See Matthew 7:13-27; Luke 13:23-24; Matthew 20:16; 22:14; 1 John 5:19, etc.)
  • Gavin, our friend in Perth, introduces us to a real find. It's The Aussie Bible, and it's no joke. Target audience seems to be Aussie drongos who are not the full quid. Here's an excerpt:

    Bonzer Tucker for a Fair Dinkum Mob (Mark 6:31-44)
    Jesus said to his team, "Come on out to the desert for a bit, so you can have some kip." (There was such a big mob hanging around they didn't even have time for a bite to eat.)

    They hopped in the skiff and rowed around the shore to a quiet spot in the scrub. But the mob saw them leave, and recognised them, and took off on foot. So people from all the townships got there ahead of them.

    When Jesus came ashore he saw this enormous mob, and felt sorry for them because they were like a bunch of aimless sheep with no one to keep on eye on them. He started talking to them, and gave them the good oil on a whole lot of things.

    Late in the arvo his team came to him and said, "This is dry mallee country, and it's getting pretty late. Let the mob pop off so they can buy themselves some tucker from local properties or townships.

    Jesus answered, "You feed them." They protested, "Do you want us to spend 200 smackers to buy enough bread for this lot?"

    He said, "Well how much bread is here? Go and check." They did so and said, "Five little pannikin loaves of damper—and a couple of fish."

    ...There were about 5,000 blokes in that mob.

  • Samuel at "The Adagio County Independent" thinks the forty days of Jabez should be left behind. Good line. But Samuel's not kissing up to be BlogSpotted.
  • Rhett Smith is the very model of a postmodern college minister. It's interesting to watch him wrestle with evangelical faddism from the paradigm of a young emerging church leader.
  • Ben Wright got a kick out of the Biblezine parodies.
  • Cindy Swanson wants my take on Matthew Fox. Easy. He'd go in the "Really, Really Bad Theology" section of my bookmarks. It's a no-brainer, really. Anyone who draws a connection between a document like this and Luther's 95 Theses does not deserve to be taken seriously as a theologian. In his capacity as a theological wolf, however, he ought to be taken very seriously.
  • Keith Plummer coins a useful word: Kitschianity.
  • Nathan White reminds us of the true priority.
  • Matthew Self finds "some good non-PyroManiac related blogging out there.
  • Chris at "Nihil Fit" has the perfect corrective for runaway faddism: read old books.
  • Tim Challies says I've gone from being flavor of the month to flavor of the week. Dan Edelen, posting in Challies' comment thread, figures that's enough to make me a fad.

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28 July 2005

What's wrong with jumping on and off the fad-wagons?

Some people actually watch the undulating waves of fads in the evangelical movement as if these were the best barometer by which to discern how the Holy Spirit is working in the world. Many evangelical leaders actually seem to think the fads are a better gauge than the Word of God for giving us a perspective on what God wants to do in His church from season to season.

Rick Warren, for example, encourages church leaders to develop their skill at fad-surfing:

At Saddleback Church we've . . . tried to recognize the waves God was sending our way, and we've learned to catch them. We've learned to use the right equipment to ride those waves, and we've learned the importance of balance. We've also learned to get off dying waves whenever we sensed God wanted to do something new. The amazing thing is this: The more skilled we become in riding waves of growth, the more God sends! (The Purpose-Driven® Church, 14-15.)

Notice his tacit assumption that the fads are the means God uses to bring growth.

Faddism has begun to usurp the role of Scripture in contemporary evangelical thinking. Fads (not the Bible) are seen as the main instruments of growth and edification. Fads (not Scripture) also set the agenda for church ministry. If you want to discover what God is doing and formulate a working strategy for church growth, you have to get your nose out of the Bible and hold up a wet finger to pop culture. Take a survey and find out what people want, then give it to them.

That is the not-so-subtle message of a hundred or so volumes on church growth that have circulated among evangelical leaders over the past 20 years.

By definition, a Fad-Driven® church cannot be a church governed by the Word of God. Those who set their direction by following the prevailing winds of change are being disobedient to the clear command of Ephesians 4:14, which instructs us not to do that.

It is a serious problem that in the contemporary, Fad-Driven® evangelical culture, very few pastors, church leaders, and key evangelical figures are both equipped and willing to answer the serious doctrinal assaults that are currently being made against core evangelical distinctives—such as the recent attacks on substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, and the doctrine of original sin.

Someone decided several years ago that the word propitiation is too technical and not user-friendly enough for contemporary Christians, so preachers stopped explaining the principle of propitiation. Now that the idea of propitiation is under attack, we have a generation of leaders who don't remember what it meant or why it's important to defend.

Something seriously needs to change in order to rescue the idea of historic evangelicalism from the contemporary evangelical movement.

And here's a good place for the change to begin: A generation of preachers needs to rise up and be committed to preaching the Word, in season and out of season, and be willing to ignore the waves of silly fads that come and go and leave the church's head spinning.

Bonus: Here's an excerpt from a sermon on Hebrews 4:12:

We need to have more confidence in the ability of the Word of God to penetrate people's hearts. This is one of the real deficiencies in this generation of evangelicals. We don't have enough faith in the power of God's Word to penetrate a hardened heart. Some Christians—and even lots of churches—actually back away from proclaiming the simple Word of God to unbelievers in plain language. They think it's necessary to have musical performances, drama, comedy, wrestling exhibitions, or other forms of entertainment ("pre-evangelism") to soften people up and prepare them to receive the Word. And in most cases those who opt for such a strategy never do get around to declaring the Word of God with any kind of boldness.

The idea is to find some activity or technique that entertains people and tries to make them friendly to Christianity while carefully avoiding the risk of confronting them with the truth of Scripture—as if something besides the Word of God might be more effective than Scripture at penetrating their hearts. That is sheer folly, and all the emphasis given to such gimmickry these days is a tremendous waste of time and energy. Nothing is more penetrating and more effective in reaching sin-hardened hearts than the pure and unadulterated Word of God. All our human techniques and ingenuity are like dull plastic butter knives compared to the Word of God, which is "sharper than any twoedged sword."

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27 July 2005

On second thought...

"There's no way to parody them," I confidently wrote. "Try to think of an exaggeration, and it's already been done for 'real.'"

Some gentlemen I am familiar with quickly rose to the challenge. They wish to remain anonymous. All they wanted made clear is that they did these during lunch hour:



So, anyway, I was going to take back my assertion that nothing is too outlandish to be marketed for real, but now I'm told two Christian publishers have heard about these and are already negotiating for the rights. That may be an apocryphal detail. I'm not sure.

As Matt Drudge would say,


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Omnium gatherum redivivus

Lots of loose ends to gather up and blog about today. I'm writing this post piecemeal, so if it lacks coherence or seems to jump from topic to topic, that's a perfect metaphor for the kind of day this has been. At the end of this rambling post, I'll include some BlogSpotting entries.

First, I want to answer a few questions and respond to a couple of remarks that have come up in comments. These are in random order.

Let's see... I need a heading:

Assorted pleas, rebuttals, statements of self-vindication, a few insults, and other off-the-cuff reactions to the Barbarian hordes and home-school moms who frequent my blog:

  1. EdwardsFan asks: "no one just joins the blogosphere with a blog so fancy pantsy. I've tried and tried . . . lament . . . and still can't figure out this template stuff. Who's helping you on the side Phil? " No one is helping me yet. But I have been able to take advantage of many years' experience of barely cobbling together webpages. I used that meager knowledge to cut through the Gordian knot of blogdesign mystery and tweak one of the templates I found at Blogspot.com. But the whole thing still just barely makes sense to me. The graphics I likewise do by myself, usually hurriedly. Those with skilled eyes for design will notice that I have very limited artistic and design capability, so I've tried to keep it very simple and functional. My only goal is to look better than Triablogue.
  2. Kim said, "I'm sorry if our dictionaries frighten you. Would slide rulers be less daunting?" Not really. The thought of suffering the wrath of a home-school mom, not merely her weaponry, is what terrifies me.
  3. To all who comment: Please remember the rules—especially the rule about Christian civility. And please don't use my comments as a forum to debate issues that arise in other contexts. If you're disturbed with something Fred Butler posted on his blog, leave a comment there. If you're angry about something that was posted at the Boar's Head, leave a comment there. Oh, wait. Scratch that. If the BHT guys annoy you, join the club. But you'll have to start your own blog to answer them. Don't import fights from other forums into my blogcomments. We have enough to fight about here already.
  4. Scott Nichols thinks we should just leave the fads alone and see what becomes of them. He writes: "I've always taken the Gamaliel approach to these things." Well, see this. Also, it seems to me that any one of Paul's commands in Titus 1:9; 2 Timothy 3:5; and 2 Timothy 4:2-5 would trump Gamaliel's advice when it comes to the issue of dealing with creeping worldliness and doctrinal decline in the church.
  5. Jonathan Felt asks, What does it take for something to be "downright destructive to the core distinctives of evangelical doctrine"? How does one 'destroy' doctrine in the first place? Well, it's not the doctrine that is destroyed, of course, but the evangelical distinctives—i.e., the evangelical commitment to certain biblical truths that are fundamental and essential. When in order to increase their clout and visibility evangelicals move the boundaries of their movement so that even non-Trinitarians (T. D. Jakes, or Phillips, Craig, and Dean) are counted as "evangelicals"; when evangelicals link up in spiritual campaigns with members of sects and denominations where justification by faith in Christ alone is flatly denied; or when they count among their closest friends and allies religious leaders who deny essential doctrines—they have sacrificed evangelical distinctives for political expediency.
         Jonathan further asks, "If I decide to team up with someone on a legislative initiative, how does it follow that my core evangelical distinctives are in danger of being destroyed?" It depends, of course, on how much of your message or your testimony you have to stifle in order to "team up." If your allies are Jewish and you hold back from declaring the exclusivity of Christ in order to hold your coalition together; or if your allies are Roman Catholic and you carefully avoid any discussion of sola fide or sola Scriptura—then you are sacrificing your distinctives for a lesser cause than the proclamation of the gospel. It happens all the time.
         Jonathan then opines: "It looks to me like the culture war stuff is the odd man out in your list, since by definition it does threaten people's comfort zone, rebukes people's sin, and so on." Perhaps, but it does so very selectively, focusing on what is peripheral, not what is central. And that is the point. The pattern has been that those who invest the most in "the culture war stuff" are often the last ones to press the actual claims of the gospel, declare the truth of redemption through Christ's atoning work, proclaim the exclusivity of Christ, and preach the full and unadulterated gospel. They become obsessed with issues like getting prayer back in schools, ignoring the fact that any prayer ever sanctioned by the American government would have to be a prayer that implicitly denies Christ's rightful lordship.
         Face it: the evangelical thrust for political activism has (historically, not just theoretically) had an ecumenical tendency. That's what I mean when I say culture wars undermine evangelical distinctives.
         By the way, if you want to see this principle in action, tune into "Focus on the Family" for six months and keep a record of how many times the gospel is clearly affirmed on that broadcast, compared to the number times you are exhorted to write your senator or participate in this or that boycott, campaign, or protest. Or ask yourself how Jerry Falwell got to be so friendly with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and why, when they appear together, Falwell often (but not even always) confronts Jackson's political ideas, but he (almost?) never challenges his false theology.
         I'll have much more to say about this issue in the coming weeks. It's one that is very important to me, because I was up to my eyebrows in conservative political activism before I became a Christian. I had many friends and political allies who, as it turns out, were Christians all along and ought to have realized that I did not know the Lord. But not one of them ever spoke to me about Christ or tried to give me the gospel message. I am convinced that the kind of political activism they were involved with is incompatible with the true calling and priorities of the gospel ministry.
         And the rationale for mobilizing the church to political activism is extremely muddy and without any clear biblical warrant. Even Steve Hays has not been very convincing on this issue.
  6. Several commenters echoed the request of Puritanicoal: "It would be great if you would devote a day or two blogtificating on what the everyday Christian should do when their Sunday School class decides to go through the latest Fad-Driven Sludge or a friend recommends reading the latest Freudian psychoBABEL they bought in the local Christian bookstore." Stay tuned. (And if I forget to do this, remind me in a couple of weeks.)
  7. Tyler Wallick says, "I'm not sure I can define what isn't timeless truth - if something does not stand the test of time, was it ever really true?" No, but notice that the contrast I made was between "timeless truth [and] passing fashions." Truth versus fashion, not "timeless truth" versus "temporary truth." Truth by definition is timeless.
  8. Mike Russell thinks "all the blogspotting and gimmicky things" at PyroManiac are "quite faddish."
         Ouch. You talkin' 'bout my graphics? What is it with all the people who hate the graphics? Should I go to THIS kind of thing as a blogformat? Maybe I could get Steve Hays to design the blog layout for me.
         Seriously, mere popularity—even temporary popularity—doesn't define what is wrong with faddism. The error of the fad mentality I'm describing is that it uses popularity and fashion as gauges and yardsticks for measuring truth. If you catch me doing that, slap me around. No, on second thought, just shoot me. Until then, humor me while I make my blog suit my own aesthetic preferences, and if you seriously suspect that I'm driven chiefly by a motive to court people's favor, I have a list of postmodernists, theonomists, charismatics, Arminians, drunken group-bloggers, Harry Potter-haters, Rick Warren aficionados, and home-school moms to whom I'll refer you for a more objective opinion.
         (By the way, if I inject a note of humor or post what you call "frivolous posts," it's not designed for anyone's benefit but mine. I'm not trying to tickle other people's ears—and oddly enough, until now, no one has ever suggested my style of humor serves such a purpose. Sorry if you don't like it. Lots of people don't. But my approach to writing a weblog is more like journaling than journalism. If you don't like it, you don't have to read over my shoulder.)
  9. Steve Camp said, "I believe biblically (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 2 Cor. 2:17; 1 Tim. 6:1-6; 3 John 5-9) that anything less than that kind of "dramatic action" is just more evangelical spin and politics." Fundamentalist.
  10. Steve commented: "Advertising is marketing. Unless the advertising is done in poor taste or is pushy, we don't have any problem with such, do we?" (By the way, Steve had several interesting observations. You ought to read his comment.) No, I don't object to marketing per se. What I have objected to is a market-driven approach to ministry, where every aspect of our message and the style of its expression is filtered through a marketing plan designed to appeal to "felt needs," opinion polls, special-interest groups and whatnot. Market-driven ministry and marketing aren't necessarily the same thing. I will have more to say about this in future posts, but all my posts are too long as it is.

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26 July 2005

Here's what I'm talking about

A new Bible for "the diverse Hip Hop culture." I'm not making this stuff up. The real products publishers are turning out are already so extreme, there's no way to parody them. (Try to think of an exaggeration, and it's already been done for "real.")

This is the latest in one publisher's line of "Biblezines"—the complete New Testament in magazine formats tailored to specific market segments. Judging from the cover photo, the primary target audience here are rage-filled African Americans age thirty and under:

Price: Fiddy Cent.

Pardon me while I go down to the studio. It's completely soundproof. I'll probably be in there for the next hour or so.
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Shall we sell our birthright for a mess of faddage?

As I started to say last week...

Virtually all the people on Time magazine's list of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals" share at least one glaringly significant trait:

For the most part, these are the fadmakers. They are the cheerleaders for whatever is fashionable. They are the designers of the programs that are peddled by the out-of-control Christian publishing industry and purchased and implemented with little critical thought or concern by hundreds of thousands of people in the movement that calls itself "evangelical."

  • Rick Warren, who heads the list, is the chief architect of the currently-dominant fad, "Forty Days of Purpose" and all the other Purpose-Driven® spinoffs.
  • Tim Lahaye is the "theological" mind behind the best-selling fad of all time—the "Left Behind" series.
  • J. I. Packer and Richard John Neuhaus have been the prime movers in the ecumenical fad—probably the last bandwagon we would have expected evangelicals to jump aboard 20 years ago.
  • Bill Hybels masterminded the "seeker-sensitive" fad.
  • Brian McLaren basically took Hybels' strategy ("contextualizing" the message for the extant culture) to the next level. McLaren is the leading figure in the "emergent church" fad.
  • James Dobson is the most powerful figure in the "culture war" fad.

Too bad for Bruce Wilkinson that Time didn't do this piece two years ago when the "Jabez" fad was still hot, or he would have almost certainly been near the top of this list. The fact that he didn't even get mentioned is a testimony to how fleeting the fads can be.

Fifteen minutes of fame

Someone will almost certainly challenge whether it's right to label all those trends and programs "fads." But that is exactly what they are. They are popular for the moment, but they have nothing to do with historic evangelicalism or the biblical principles that made evangelicalism an important idea.

Not one of those movements or programs even existed 35 years ago. Most of them would not have been dreamed of by evangelicals merely a generation ago. And, frankly, most of them will not last another generation. Some will last a few short months (like the Jabez phenomenon did); others may seem to dominate for several years but then die lingering deaths (like Bill Gothard's movement is doing). But they will all eventually fade and fall from significance. And some poor wholesale distributor will be left with warehouses full of Jabez junk, Weigh-Down Workshop paraphernalia, "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, Purpose-Driven® merchandise, and stacks and stacks of "emerging church" resources.

Yes, if the lessons of church history mean anything, even the "emerging church" phenomenon is a passing phase. In a short time (probably short enough to be measured in months rather than decades) the hype will be focused on something else entirely. Most of the stuff you are currently being told you must read and implement will soon seem as hopelessly out of date as it currently seems well-suited to the fashions of the day.

As a matter of fact, the "emerging church" is a classic example of a fad that has to pass from the scene. It is, after all, self-consciously a product of contemporary culture. Those who love it have a clear preference for that which is timely over that which is timeless. Like everything that is dated, it will soon be outdated. (And even if emergent leaders try their best to remain fluid and keep pace with cultural changes, they will fade into irrelevance. No "contemporary" movement in history has ever managed to remain contemporary for much more than a generation.)

Christians, of all people—and evangelicals most of all—ought to understand these things and build their movements around timeless truth rather than passing fashions. See Colossians 3:2.

How post-evangelicalism gave birth to the Fad-Driven® Church

So why has the recent culture of American evangelicalism—a movement supposedly based on a commitment to timeless truths—been so susceptible to fads? Why are evangelical churches so keen to jump on every bandwagon? Why do our people so eagerly rush to buy the latest book, CD, or cheap bit of knockoff merchandise concocted by the marketing geniuses who have taken over the Christian publishing industry?

To borrow and paraphrase something the enigmatic Dissidens recently blogged (see "Remonstrans"), evangelicals and fundamentalists alike "have a genuine affection for the ugly and the superficial, whether in their art, their preaching, or their devotion." A few years ago, marketing experts learned how to tap into evangelicals' infatuation with the cheap and tawdry and turn it into cash.

Some of the beginner-level fads have seemed harmless enough—evangelical kitsch like Kinkade paintings, Precious Moments® collectibles, singing songbooks, moralizing vegetables, bumper stickers, Naugahyde® Bible covers, and whatnot. Such fads themselves, taken individually, may not seem worth complaining about at all. But collectively, they have created an appetite for "the ugly and the superficial." They have spawned more and more fads. Somewhere along the line, evangelicals got the notion that all the fads were good, because the relentless parade of bandwagons gave the illusion that evangelicals were gaining significant influence and visibility. No bandwagon was too weird to get in the parade. And the bigger, the better.

As a result, several of the more recent fads have been downright destructive to the core distinctives of evangelical doctrine, because most of them (Promise Keepers, Willow Creek, and the various political and ecumenical movements) have taken a deliberately minimalistic approach to doctrine, discarding key evangelical distinctives or labeling them nonessential. All of them adhered to a deliberate strategy that was designed to broaden the movement and make each successive bandwagon bigger and easier to climb onto.

"Bandwagons"? Somewhere along the line, the bandwagons morphed into Trojan horses.

Some of the very latest fads (represented by groups like Emergent, Oasis, and the "open theists") are utterly hostile to virtually every evangelical doctrinal distinctive. They have already launched major frontal attacks on essential doctrines like substitutionary atonement, original sin, and justification by faith.

How tabloid-journalist moguls took control of what you are offered to read

I have been involved in publishing for most of my adult life, and I love the historic influence Christian literature has made on the church. But the Christian publishing industry has changed dramatically in recent years. Companies once run by godly Christians have been bought out by powerful secular media czars and made part of massive business empires. Marketing, not ministry, is the driving force behind most of the industry these days.

Christian publishers have eagerly and deliberately fomented evangelicalism's bizarre craving for more and more fads and programs. Trust me: no one loves the Fad-Driven® Church more than the Profit-Driven® publishing industry.

There are some blessed exceptions, of course. There are still a few good and godly men who still have influence in Christian publishing. But they are relatively rare. They are drowning entities in an industry that is out of control. If you don't believe me, visit the annual convention of the Christian Booksellers' Association, spend an afternoon on the display floor, and take inventory of the dross that dominates the evangelical marketplace. It seems almost everything currently in style—and everything that hopes to become the next great evangelical fad—is tacky, trashy, and trivial. And the unscrupulous cheapjacks who manufacture and peddle this stuff hype their rubbish with marketing machines that rival anything in the secular world.

When it comes to books, have you noticed how few truly timeless and significant volumes are being published? That's because nowadays, decisions about what to publish are driven by marketeers who have little concern for the spiritual or editorial content of a book. I have sat in meetings with publishers while their marketing experts vetted concepts for new books. "That one's too biblical." (Those are the exact words one of these Christian kitsch-peddlers actually once said in my presence to a roomful of nodding experts from the Christian publishing industry. He was talking about a book proposal from a well-known Christian author. The book was later published anyway and went on to become a best-seller despite the professional marketers' almost unanimously tepid feelings about it.) Christian publishers have even been known to remove biblical content from books by Christian authors (especially books on leadership, parenting, and similar topics perceived to have "broad secular appeal"). The marketing specialists think de-Christianized books will appeal to a bigger audience.

That is precisely how all these fads are crafted. Content is deliberately dumbed down—purposely made soft, generic, and non-threatening. The message mustn't threaten anyone's comfort zone. It also doesn't rebuke anyone's sin; it won't embarrass anyone's worldliness; it and it isn't going to challenge anyone's shallowness. That's the way both the publishers and the people want it.

That is the culture the evangelical movement deliberately created when it accepted the notion that religion is something to be peddled and sold to consumers like a commodity. That was a major philosophical shift that created an environment where unspiritual and unscrupulous men could easily make merchandise of the gospel. It created a whole generation of pseudo-evangelicals, who are like "children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men" (Ephesians 4:14).

That's a perfect biblical description of the faddism that has overtaken the evangelical movement in recent years.

Phil's signature

25 July 2005


Phil's signature

Monday Menagerie VIII

PyroManiac devotes Monday space to esoteric and offbeat things, in the hope that these will supply learning experiences for us all.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was England's answer to Benjamin Franklin. Born a generation after the American inventor, Bentham was himself an inventor, philosopher, mathematician, economist, and political commentator. (He even looked a little like Franklin.) Moreover, like Franklin, he was an extraordinary polymath—a genius who excelled in multiple fields of knowledge. He was a skilled writer, thinker, and polemicist with an extraordinarily fertile mind, and his impact on his world was profound.

The Panopticon
The Panopticon
One of Bentham's best-known inventions was a kind of prison he called the panopticon—a circular arrangement where a single guard could observe multiple prisoners without moving from one central location. Bentham also coined a number of now-familiar words, including international, maximize, and codify.

But Bentham's most important and far-reaching invention was not any visible or tangible item. Nor was it a mere word. It was a philosophy, and one that has made a deep (and in my assessment, disastrous) impact on human history. Bentham was the inventor of utilitarianism, a way of thinking that begins with the assumption that "good" is defined by whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Bentham's famous godson, John Stuart Mill, later refined and popularized utilitarianism as a philosophical system, but Bentham is the true father of the idea. (Perhaps godfather would be a more fitting term here.)

Bentham's philosophical outlook naturally set him at odds with eighteenth-century morality, which was largely inherited from the biblical and evangelical world-view of the Puritan era. His utilitarianism also made him a bitter critic of the entire British legal system. He argued, for example, that sodomy should be decriminalized. His treatise, "Offences Against One's Self," was not published in his lifetime, but it stands as a classic and very early example of how the utilitarian argument affects one's perspective on moral issues.

Bentham was born into a prosperous family of lawyers in the Spitalfields area of London. The family had apparently never been particularly devout Christians. (One of Bentham's great-uncles on his mother's side was a printer who published the first edition of Matthew Tindal's Deist manifesto Christianity as old as the Creation—arguing, like the Sadducees and the Socinians, for a naturalistic and moralistic religion devoid of any supernatural elements.)

Bentham's father realized Jeremy was a prodigy and pushed the young boy through college at an early age. The elder Bentham wanted his son to become a lawyer, but his heavy-handed fathering (combined with the fact that Jeremy went through his entire academic career as the youngest, smallest, most maladjusted student in every school he ever attended) made the young Bentham a reclusive, critical, social misfit with wonderful literary and academic skills. Those traits colored his whole life and philosophy.

Jeremy Bentham became a bitter and outspoken critic of the best-known legal expert of his time, William Blackstone. (Blackstone, of course, was one of the most pivotal and important figures in the history of British jurisprudence.) Although Bentham was essentially unemployed and unemployable as a lawyer himself, he loved the critic's role.

He was enabled to become a full-time critic when he inherited a small fortune upon the death of his overbearing father. Now independently wealthy, Jeremy Bentham made the most of his independence. He moved into a house in Westminster once occupied by poet John Milton. There he became something of a recluse and an eccentric. He named his teapot "Dickey," his walking-sticks "Dapple" and "Dobbin," and his cat "The Reverend Dr. John Langhorne."

Nonetheless, because his writings were filled with lucid prose and passionate arguments, he influenced the world. (I guess Bentham was, in a way, the original and quintessential superblogger.) He wrote for the next forty years, producing ten to twenty manuscript pages per day.

Bentham's legacy is still felt today in at least two major trends that have affected our world profoundly. First, he seems to have played a significant role in unleashing terrorism as a modern strategy for politics and revolution. His writings had a major impact on the Jacobins during the French Revolution. They justified the use of terror as a political tool with utilitarian arguments borrowed from Bentham. Bentham argued against natural rights, calling the concept "nonsense upon stilts." (A modern edition of his essays from that era was published a few years ago with the title Rights, Representation, and Reform: Nonsense upon Stilts and Other Writings on the French Revolution.) The arguments often given to justify terrorism today still owe much to the ethics of Bentham's utilitarianism.

Second, the moral and ethical relativism at the heart of most postmodern thought also finds its origin in Bentham's utilitarian system.

Obviously, Bentham was not someone whose thinking I admire.

The Auto-Icon

The Auto-icon
The Auto-icon
But what I want to introduce you to in this post is Bentham's final, sneering prank against proper society: his "auto-icon."

In his will, Bentham bequeathed much of his fortune to the University of London (now known as University College London). Along with the bequest, he had some very specific instructions about what was to be done with his remains. Bentham had actually planned for the disposition of his body for many years. As a matter of fact, the portion of his will that deals with the preparation and final interment of his remains is worth reading:

My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in manner hereinafter mentioned. And I direct that as soon as it appears to anyone that my life is at an end, my executor (or any other person by whom on the opening of this paper the contents thereof shall have been observed) shall send an express with information of my decease to Doctor Southwood Smith requesting him to repair to the place where my body is lying. And after ascertaining by appropriate experiment that no life remains, it is my request that he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this will, and at the top of which I have written 'Auto-Icon.'

The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a Chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of the time employed in writing. I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The Body so clothed together with the chair and the staff in my later years borne by me he will take charge of And for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon

His wishes were followed to the letter.

Unfortunately, Dr. Southwood Smith botched the embalming of the head. Bentham would no doubt have been deeply disappointed by this. He had personally selected the glass eyes that were meant to be used in his embalmed head, and carried them in his pocket for a decade before he died.

Let's allow the good doctor himself to describe what happened to the philosopher's head:

I endeavoured to preserve the head untouched, merely drawing away the fluids by placing it under an air pump over sulphuric acid. By this means the head was rendered as hard as the skulls of the New Zealanders; but all expression was of course gone.

Today the head is shriveled and macabre:

Doctor Smith continues:

Seeing this would not do for exhibition, I had a model made in wax by a distinguished French artist... The artist succeeded in producing one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen. I then had the skeleton stuffed out to fit Bentham's own clothes, and this wax likeness fitted to the trunk. This figure was placed seated in the chair on which he usually sat; and one hand holding the walking stick which was his constant companion when he was out, called by him Dapple. The whole was enclosed in a mahogany case with folding glass doors.

Nowadays, Bentham's actual head is reportedly kept in a vault in a storeroom not far from the corpse, which sits in a hallway at the University College London. But a familiar picture does exist of Bentham's dessicated sconce on display at his own feet.

A very informative article posted on the Web informs us that "The 'distinguished French artist' who made the wax replacement head was Jacques Talrich (d. 1851), a medical man who turned to anatomical modelling after military and general medical practice. His models in wax and in plastic materials found their way to museums in Britain, Germany, Russia and the United States, as well as in France, where he was modeller to the Paris School of Medicine."

British sensibilities being what they are, perhaps it is no wonder that the College has never done much to give deliberate publicity to the Auto-icon. In fact, at first, Dr. Southwood Smith retained possession of the corpse-case. He apparently kept it at his own home until about 1850, when it was finally moved to the College. Dr. Smith recorded, " When I removed from Finsbury Square I had no room large enough to hold the case. I therefore gave it to University college, where it now is. Any one may see it who enquires there for it, but no publicity is given to the fact that Bentham reposes there in some back room. The authorities seem to be afraid or ashamed to own their possession."

Perhaps privately, however, University Regents were not so embarrassed by the Auto-icon. Nor have they always relegated their famous philosopher-benefactor to an out-of-the-way closet. One legend has it that for many years, the cabinet with Bentham's corpse would be brought into Regents' meetings and placed at the head of the table. The minutes would solemnly state, "Jeremy Bentham present, not voting."

The legend is exaggerated, no doubt. According to one of the more credible sources, the fact of the matter is that "the auto-icon has attended very few meetings. The only such meeting of record was hosted by the Bentham Club on 24 February 1953 in the men’s staff Common Room. Otherwise, with the exception of the German exhibition planned for 2002, its appearances have been of the ceremonial sort."

Nonetheless, more than 150 years after Bentham's corpse was handed to the College, he's still there, on display, and not at Madame Tussaud's. They mustn't be too embarrassed by it.

24 July 2005

Harry Potter and the Dark Maven of BlogSpotting

  • Bret Capranica thinks my blogname fits my personality. He, on the other hand, has recently helped start a group blog called Fide-O. Less than a week after launching, Bret and the other dawgs at Fide-O have been cranking out great posts at a pace I can hardly read fast enough to keep up with. If they keep it up, I'll be adding Fide-O to my blogroll soon.
  • Doug McHone seems to exclude me (and Hugh Hewitt) from the list of bloggers he "actually would like to meet." What's up with that?
  • Paul Lamey thinks some cases of church arson are justified.
  • Gavin at "The Squawking Cockatiel" manages to find a picture of the PyroManiac in the pulpit of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. He's very clever at doctoring graphics, too.
    Elsewhere, he gives a brief account of how the effects of America's evangelical meltdown has reached even to Perth, Australia.

  • Dr. Andrew Jackson expects the rest of my series on the evangelical disaster to be interesting. I'm going to do my best not to disappoint him.
  • Shaun Nolan reminds us that the key to getting evangelicals back on track lies in looking back to Acts 2, not looking ahead to the next fad or looking around at what the world is doing.
  • Andy at "The Last Homely House" says his view of the current state of the church is virtually the same as mine.
  • Peter Bogert found a few good things floating around the blogosphere.
        There are lots more links I could BlogSpot, but some of the homeschool moms get really irritated when I BlogSpot them, and I don't want to risk getting clubbed with one of those unabridged dictionaries. I'm getting tired, anyway. So, finally...
  • Matthew Self wants me to post an opinion about Harry Potter. As if we needed another opinion on that. Then again, what's the point in blogging at all if you don't want to express an opinion in a realm already glutted with opinions? So, without further ado:

    On reading Harry Potter books
        I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books, so I'm not really entitled to much of an opinion about them. I've seen a couple of the Potter movies.
        In fact, I rarely read any fiction. The only two significant fiction works I recall reading in the past twenty years were both written by Tom Wolfe. I read those only because he was one of my favorite non-fiction authors. (I regularly read so much in the course of my work that when I get a hankering for fiction as entertainment, I'd normally prefer to watch a movie rather than read.)
        I don't agree, however, with those who think the Potter books should be automatically declared off limits for all Christians because they feature magical and occult themes. The argument simply proves too much. Ultimately, it would work as an argument against virtually all fiction. In order to be consistent, for example, those who make that argument would have to rule out The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, everything from the Brothers Grimm, The Chronicles of Narnia, and my own favorite book from childhood, A Wrinkle in Time (which I read in 1962, before it won the Newberry Award).
        All those books do teach some ideas I strongly disagree with. But they are, after all, fiction. Darlene and I taught our kids to read such books as fiction. We would have been concerned if the kids had shown any difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction, or if they had become obsessed with Harry Potter, developed a fixation with sorcery, or taken any kind of personal interest in the black arts per se. If they had begun to live in a fantasy world of any kind, I would certainly imposed restrictions on reading fantasy and fiction. Since they weren't prone to that kind of dementia, I encouraged them to read as much as they wanted to read.
        Consider this: If you are a thoughtful and critical thinker, you'll have to acknowledge that even the "family fare" coming out of Hollywood—virtually all of it—is grounded in one non-biblical worldview or another. It is therefore usually most seriously flawed at the very point where it aims to teach us some lesson about religion or Christianity.
        As a matter of fact, speaking as a Christian who believes Scripture is authoritative, I have to say that I don't agree with the basic spiritual world-view in "It's a Wonderful Life"; "Star Wars"; "Pinocchio"; and a whole lot of other family films. (Personally, I didn't even like the rigid Sabbatarianism portrayed in "Chariots of Fire.") But I do like all those films as works of fiction (or historical drama, in the case of "Chariots").
        Now, I have no difficulty whatsoever living with both what I like and what I dislike about any work of fiction or drama. Because even where they get spiritual truths wrong, such works still provide opportunities for discussion and clarification of vital biblical points.
        I would naturally be inclined to argue that all fiction is useless and wrong, except for one stubborn fact that mitigates against that position: Jesus used fiction all the time in His teaching. In at least one case, even when the story's protagonist had an evil value system, Jesus used the story to teach a positive spiritual truth anyway (Luke 16:1-9). Creative parents, likewise, can use even the portrayal of evil in children's stories like The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter to teach their children positive truth. The key is to be attentive, and Christ-centered, and biblical in your thinking.
        All secular works of fiction should be read with the utmost care and discernment. But then, even Christian works of theological non-fiction should be read with the same kind of careful, critical discrimination.
        I do happen to believe there's inherent educational value in reading great literature, even if it teaches moral or spiritual lessons we disagree with. "Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22). Daniel was taught "the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans" (Daniel 1:4). The benefit they derived from learning the ways of the Egyptians and Chaldeans surely was more intellectual than spiritual. But Scripture never treats such learning as a Bad Thing.
        Ultimately, therefore, how I might answer the question of whether Christians should read Harry Potter or not would hinge primarily on whether the books really qualify as good literature. Having never read them, I cannot give an informed opinion on that. But judging from all reviews I have read, they are quite well written. Judging from the films, they are inventive and entertaining. So I'm not going to frown on brothers and sisters in Christ who have read them and enjoyed them and who do think they are good literature.
        I know some will be disturbed by that. I'll respect your opinion and refer you to Romans 14.

    PS: My eldest noticed the subject of this post and remarked that Frank Peretti's demon-warfare novels and the rest of the cheap apocalytic fiction evangelical publishers keep cranking out are far more evil than Harry Potter, and that's what Christians ought to stay away from. I think he has a point.

23 July 2005

Omnium gatherum

PyromaniacOK, I know I was supposed to post the next blog entry on the evangelical disaster Friday night or Saturday. But I've decided to wait.

I have already written it, and it's ready to post. It's a very important article in the series. It will probably ruffle a few feathers and generate a few passionate comments. But since we're already into the weekend, and my blogtraffic is typically half or less on weekends, I've decided to wait till after the weekend to post it. (Which means I'll post it Tuesday, because Monday is Menagerie Day, reserved for more lighthearted issues.)

I hope you'll think it worth the wait when you read Tuesday's post. Please don't miss it.

Meanwhile, here are some odds and ends:

  1. Technorati is a cool search engine. Over the past couple of weeks, however, it has been irritatingly sporadic and flaky. Tonight it seems to be working better and faster. Hopefully, they have fixed some issues with it. When I first searched there, it was smart enough to put ads for John MacArthur resources next to the search results that had links to PyroManiac. My recent posts naming some evangelical oddballs seem to have skewed those results, however, because tonight when I searched, the ads it gave me included "Holy Ghost Preaching: Anointed Sermon Outlines" and "Sermon Movie Illustration: Illustrations from Major Movies."
  2. For those who have asked, there is no "typical" day in the life of the PyroManiac. I live by deadlines. Each day is different, depending on what's due. Today:
    • I awoke at 6:00, got ready for work, and read for a brief time.
    • Starting about 7:25, I wrote the morning blogpost and left for work by 8:15.
    • I arrived at the office a few minutes late (8:34). I had several meetings scheduled (including one that was about an hour and a half long). The first meeting began at 9:00.
    • After all the meetings, I wrote a column for Pulpit magazine.
    • I skipped lunch in order to finish the article by 3:00.
    • In between a dozen interruptions (phone calls, people bopping into my office, etc.), I answered some urgent e-mails and a couple of non-urgent ones.
    • After finishing the article, I browsed through my mail. (Kim, my secretary, is in Europe on a two-week short-term missions trip, so I had to look through junk mail that she would normally weed out for me.)
    • Rich Barcellos phoned me twice between 4:30 and 5:45. The second time he called, he reminded me that it was time to go home.
    • That's just what I did.
    • At home, my son and his wife had come over to watch the Cubs' game. We ate dinner together while watching the end of the game. The Cubs lost again. Even though they lost to the Cardinals on a squeeze bunt in extra innings, it wasn't as painful as yesterday. (Because all I could think about yesterday was that the iMonk was at the game, enjoying the Cubs' loss).
    • I relaxed for an hour or so, and watched the news until 8:30 or 9:00.
    • I browsed quickly through the comments at PyroManiac, surfed a few favorite blogs, and wrote this post.
    • After finishing this, I'll probably go to bed. It'll be close to midnight then. That's about as routine as my days get. Tomorrow I'll do yard work for half the day and study the end of Galatians 2 for the other half. I'm teaching through Galatians, but Don Green is teaching Sunday, so there is no pressure to get a whole message ready this weekend. I'll enjoy tomorrow. Perhaps I'll write a BlogSpotting post tomorrow evening.

  3. Speaking of the iMonk, Li'l Brudder was quoted quoting Spurgeon on a Catholic blog. I've always said the Monk is at his very best when he's quoting Spurgeon. He should do more of it.
  4. I have received several helpful suggestions regarding the blogformat and blogtools. Thanks for your feedback. I've decided not to switch to Haloscan for now, because that would delete all the existing comments. The benefits don't seem to outweigh the downside of that. Also, I briefly tried wider columns and did not like it. The narrow columns are easier on my failing eyesight. I like the current format, and for those who think the graphics are a waste of bandwidth, sorry. I like the look and feel of PyroManiac. As long as I don't get a lot of complaints saying that the content is a waste of bandwidth, I'm happy with it.
  5. Incidentally, it's been less than two months since PyroManiac premiered, and yesterday marked exactly one month since I added the hit counter. The hit counter just passed 50,000, which is encouraging. I'll keep posting as long as people keep giving me feedback.

..and the crowd roared!

22 July 2005

Reforming Evangelicalism?

For the record, I have no sentimental attachment to the term evangelicalism or the visible movement that now employs that name. What's important to me are the principles of historic evangelicalism. I have explained a little more fully what that entails in an article posted here. Those wishing to delve into this theme more deeply should also read the document and subsequent discussion posted here.

The question of whether the evangelical movement is dying, dead, irrelevant, irreformable, or whatever, is not my primary concern in the series of articles I've been posting. If asked, I would say the large movement that has represented "American evangelicalism" for the past century and a half (beginning roughly with D. L. Moody and culminating in Billy Graham) is in its final death throes. (Billy Graham himself hardly seems "evangelical" most of the time nowadays.)

Actually, that's a really optimistic assessment. My strong suspicion is that the movement is well and truly dead, and we shouldn't mistake the bloated and expanding size of its corpse, or its occasional spontaneous post-mortem twitches, for signs of real life.

I'm not interested in reviving or reforming that movement. Neither church history nor Scripture gives us much encouragement to work for the reformation and perpetuation of organizations and movements. Earthly institutions and human campaigns always decline and decay. Even the Protestant Reformation had its main impact outside the Roman Catholic Church, the Catholic priesthood, and the papacy—although those were the visible institutions the earliest Protestants originally set out to reform.

Institutional reform almost always fails. Twentieth-century evangelicals who stayed in the mainline denominations ultimately failed to reform any of them. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised or discouraged by that, but we should learn from it. Our concern should be for truth and principles, not for visible institutions, organizations, and movements.

To be as clear and concise as possible: What I am eager to see preserved and perpetuated are the sound, biblical ideas that sparked the evangelical and fundamentalist movements, not the corrupt cultures that ultimately overwhelmed them and led to their predictable demise.

My main aim in this current series of posts is to delineate some of the important differences between sound evangelical and fundamental principles and the various fads and manias most people today falsely refer to as "evangelicalism."

I hope to make another post about the Fad-Driven® Church sometime tonight or early tomorrow. Watch for it. But given the direction of some of the comment-threads, I wanted to make this statement first.

For those who haven't time to look it up, here's what I have written elsewhere about how to define true evangelicalism:

Historically, the word evangelical first came into widespread usage along with the Protestant Reformation. William Tyndale used the expression "evangelical truth" as a synonym for the gospel. By the 18th century, the adjective was being used to describe "that school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of 'the Gospel' consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy" (Oxford English Dictionary).

Naturally, as Protestants, evangelicals affirmed both the formal and material principles of the Reformation (sola Scriptura and sola fide). They were also committed to the exclusivity of Christ; believing that His atoning work is the only hope of salvation for sinners. That usage of the term evangelical has been crystal clear for at least two and a half centuries.

In other words, in the historic sense of the word, when we speak of the evangelical movement, we're speaking of those who share 1) a commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; 2) a belief in the necessity and the efficacy of Christ's atoning work; and 3) a profound sense of urgency about getting the gospel message to the uttermost parts of the world. The simplicity of the definition is the very thing that gives clarity to the expression. There is not really much that's vague about the historic meaning of the term evangelical.

Notice: the distinguishing characteristics of historic evangelicalism are weighty, foundational, and fundamental principles—not peripheral matters. That is why evangelical convictions have always transcended denominational lines. Those vital truths established an unshakable core of unity and remarkable harmony on matters that are of the essence of the gospel. Yet they allowed for amazing diversity on peripheral issues.

21 July 2005

New terror on the Tube

For the most interesting and up-to-date firsthand accounts of today's lunchtime "incidents" in the London Underground, see the BBC Reporters' Log. That page is being continually updated and includes some interesting eyewitness accounts from the sites of the incidents.

This just in: Jon Trainer is blogging live from London, where he has been committing wanton acts of tourism all day, despite the heightened state of alert.

We now return you to our regularly-scheduled programming.

Living in the aftermath of the great evangelical disaster

Time magazine's recent photo essay on "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals" would have been enough all by itself to convince me the evangelical movement has suffered a fatal meltdown. The list included people like T. D. Jakes, who denies the Trinity; former Lutheran-turned-Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus; Joyce Meyer, the jet-setting charismatic prosperity-gospel preacherette; and Brian McLaren, the postmodern pastor who dilutes almost every historic evangelical distinctive he doesn't outright deny, and whose views on the authority of Scripture undermine the concept of truth itself.

Thirty years ago, not one of those people would have been included in any list of evangelicals. They are not evangelicals in the historic sense of the word.

What has changed? The answer is clear: the concept of evangelicalism has been expanded to become virtually all-inclusive. The word evangelical has lost its historic meaning. These days it means everything—and it therefore means nothing.

So while evangelicalism may seem to be gaining clout and respectability in the eyes of secular media like Time, the truth is that evangelicals themselves are actually less evangelical. The movement has collapsed on itself.

By the way, it is clear where Time magazine thinks evangelicalism's clout is being felt the most—and it's not in spiritual matters. It's mostly in the realm of politics and entertainment—pop culture.

The word evangelical used to describe a well-defined theological position. What made evangelicals distinct was their commitment to the authority of Scripture and the exclusivity of Christ. Now "evangelicalism" is a political movement, and its representatives hold a wide variety of theological beliefs—from Neuhaus's Roman Catholicism to Jakes's heretical Sabellianism, to Joyce Meyer's radical charismaticism, to Brian McLaren's anti-scriptural postmodernism. There's only one person in Time's entire list who would remotely qualify as an evangelical theologian: J. I. Packer. And Packer himself has been on a quest for the past 20 years to make evangelicalism as broad and ecumenical as possible.

Frankly, none of the people highlighted above would even agree among themselves on any of the points of doctrine that make their respective views distinctive. They probably wouldn't even agree on the essential points of the gospel message. The one thing they clearly do agree on is that they'd like to see the evangelical movement become as broad and inclusive as possible.

But that's not really historical evangelicalism, is it? That kind of latitudinarianism has always belonged to Socinians, Deists, modernists, and theological liberals. It is antithetical to the historic principles of the evangelical movement.

20 July 2005

Who Let the Dogs Out?