On Being a Critical Christian
A while back, over at Together for the Gospel, C. J. Mahaney posed the question, what is the most serious threat to the Gospel today? The question has stayed with me, bugged me, nagged at me, ever since. I know what I want to say in answer. I don't know if it's really the "most" serious threat, but I think it's pretty high up the list. I'm speaking of glib happy-talk and positive-thinking messages among Christians.
This kind of thing usually goes under the label "encouragement." Joel Osteen is, of course, the reigning master here, but I'm not going to pick on him. The problem is rampant. I think there are probably many negative ramifications, but I want to look at one in particular. The absence of a critical perspective--of critical engagement with, for example, a religious book, film, pastoral message, or church program. Instead, we in the church tend to aggregate at two opposite poles--that of the hyper-critical (you know them well, I'm sure, and no explanation is needed here), and on the other end of the spectrum the glib boosterism that must allow everything that comes from the pastor's lips, or from the current Christian bestseller, etc., to pass without inspection.
We all remember, if we belong to churches that got swept up in the "purpose driven" thing, the spirit of hyper-acceptance, insistently uncritical, with which people were expected to receive that book and its message. The marketing people at Christian publishers know how to take advantage of this attitude, and they do so with distressing ease. That's because we're suckers for "the next big thing." As consumers, we're no more independent or careful than kids at the video-game section of Walmart.
Douglas Groothuis addressed this very issue recently [HT: Transforming Sermons]. He speaks of the "constructive curmugeon" (what a good phrase):
The curmudgeon is constructive in that half-truths, bovine excrement, fashionable nonsense, unfashionable nonsense, and other offenses to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful need to be exposed so that the light may dawn and reality be revealed. Reality denudes us all in the end, no matter how much we hate it. The curmudgeon tries to love reality, deep reality--whatever the cost. She or he encourages others to love reality as well, come what may.The sub-head over at Wade Hodges' blog is right on: "without disagreement, nothing can be learned." I (ummm) agree. And the corollary to that statement is, "When disagreement is discouraged, people remain ignorant."
Finally, at the risk of being overly-dramatic, let me just say that the day will come when a cleverly marketed product will come along, taking advantage of a long-entrenched spirit of uncritical acceptance, and sweep much of the church off its foundation and cornerstone, leading many astray. [Mark 13:22-23] We are called to be watchful, to test the spirits, and to know how to read the signs of the times. In short, we are called to be "educated" Christians. That's why we need to encourage a culture of healthy, constructive, and intelligently critical engagement with every text, especially those which comes under the label, "Christian."
UPDATE:Doug Groothuis wrote an excellent follow-up called Cheerful Curmudgeon Weighs In. This post says, in my opinion, just about the "last word" on the subject.