Dumbfounded

There are times that I am stunned to silence (not many, granted, but a few…) by my own denomination.  I wonder what it is that we believe and what our witness to the world really is.  The latest brick in the wall of incredulity came when I saw that William Young, author of The Shack, would be one of the featured speakers at the 2010 Congress on Evangelism.  I called up a former colleague to just check out the thinking behind having a major presenter whose theology is so at odds with our own.  What I was told was:

  • this is a coup, getting someone so famous,
  • it doesn’t matter what his theology is, UMs are reading this book so its worth getting him,
  • his message is reaching millions even as ours is not, so we need to learn how to do it better,
  • endorsing poor theology isn’t that big an issue; most people don’t know which is good theology and which is bad,
  • what gets said isn’t as important as how it gets said,
  • plus, this is a big coup — getting someone so famous!

My feeble protests fell on deaf ears.  Apparently, theology simply isn’t important.  This is why Purpose Driven Life, Prayer of Jabez, Your Best Life Now and the Left Behind series are all prominently displayed at our Cokesbury stores nationwide.  In my circle of seminary professor friends there is universal confusion as to why any of these books are being read, studied, or supported by United Methodist clergy.  It results in what one of my colleagues calls “the unrelenting stupidification of United Methodists.”  Make it simplistic, make it entertaining, make it fun, but don’t worry one iota about intelligence or integrity.

To the argument that these books are “harmless” one of my professorial pals reflects, “they’re insidious.  They appeal because they are happy-crappy, positive feel-good books.  But just because they lack any substance or value doesn’t make them innocuous.  They all subtly communicate that the Christian faith is all about us and our feelings and our needs.  They divide the world into those who are blessed and those who are not.  They are a form of “ignosticism” — secret knowledge for the ignorant.”

“The Left Behind books are simply hateful.  And the Prosperity gospel books are not much better.  All of these books are like children’s fairy tales, reinforcing an immature faith for an immature audience.  The Shack is perhaps the greatest insult to intelligent Christians anywhere, yet it is a best seller.  It is almost understandable that the untrained and poorly taught read this book.  What is indefensible at any level is that a seminary-trained ordained clergyperson would endorse such tripe.”

But these two opinions illustrate little more than the divide between academic religion and the lived religion in U.S. congregations.  The average U.S. local church is not nearly as concerned with sound theology as they are with filling the pews.  I know a large number of pastors who adopt a “whatever it takes” attitude to getting people to come to church.  If people get their understanding of divine intervention from Touched By An Angel and Joan of Arcadia, so be it.  As one pastor told me, “who knows what’s true about angels?  One story is as good as another whether I tell it or it’s on TV.”

If it doesn’t matter what our message is, why bother being United Methodist?  If anyone’s theology is as good as anyone else’s, why bother studying at all.  In our age where poor, sloppy, uncritical thinking is labeled “post-modern” (by those who have no real clue what post-modernism is) and every individual’s interpretation is as valid and true as everyone else’s, why discuss our faith or prayerfully seek to discern God’s will?  What is the witness of The United Methodist Church when we promote any theology — good or bad — and say it really doesn’t matter?

Sure, there is a broad spectrum of theological perspectives, and we need to respect the full gamut.  But there are also some basic rigors of critical thinking that define United Methodists as separate from “looser” approaches.  A friend of mine asked me not long ago, “so why don’t United Methodists write break-out best sellers like Osteen and Warren”  For me, the answer is simple, speaking the theological truth in love will never appeal to the mass audience.  It demands too much, it discomforts, and it requires sacrifice and commitment.  United Methodists cannot compromise their core values and foundational beliefs enough to write the kind of mind candy and spiritual Twinkies that people snarf up to put a book on the best-seller list.  At least, for now, we may read the stuff, but we’re embarrassed enough not to write the stuff.

35 replies

  1. All I can say is welcome to my world. As a professional (graduate schooled trained) musician I have seen the plummet of quality in pretty much all church music. “Traditional” music has been sold at the marketplace, following lock-step the popular culture model. “Contemporary” has always lived in the market place, producing music with the same value as toilet paper. Useful, needed, but quickly thrown away. Real art, music, drama, literature, etc. can challenge and invigorate a church. The shame is that most either do not want to be invigorated.

  2. When I read the sentences “A friend of mine asked me not long ago, “so why don’t United Methodists write break-out best sellers like Osteen and Warren” For me, the answer is simple, speaking the theological truth in love will never appeal to the mass audience. It demands too much, it discomforts, and it requires sacrifice and commitment. United Methodists cannot compromise their core values and foundational beliefs enough to write the kind of mind candy and spiritual Twinkies that people snarf up to put a book on the best-seller list.” my first reaction is “So what are those core values and why are they so hard to articulate in a popular way?” I have been a member of the UMC since I was confirmed in the year of the merger. I have led many study groups on topical subjects, biblical studies and even the history and the structure of the UMC. I hear a lot about “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” and the ecumenical efforts to share with other denominations, but the feedback I get from non-Methodists is that the UMC either stands for nothing or everything (ten miles wide and two inches deep).
    It seems to me that Rev. Wesley preached, he preached a gospel to the populace, not the elite, and they responded to the truth he spoke, even if they did not fully understand it. And Methodism transformed a culture (okay, admittedly that “transformation” is according to some Methodist historians).
    If, when Carl Sagan can popularize “Cosmos” and Stephen Hawking can make black holes understandable, we say that UMC writers cannot speak “the theological truth in love [in a way that] will . . . appeal to the mass audience” are we not just surrendering. Surely we are more creative than that.
    Last Spring, my friend and I led a men’s study group on the Three General Rules using Watson’s “Blueprint for Discipleship”. We had great fun trying to update the rules for the 21st century (we are in Texas so we had great problems with the stricture against wearing big hats–it had to go). But they got the message. What was once a group six men then became twelve and now 20, with a lot of iron sharpening iron.
    And all we did was study the same message that started with a people called the Methodists.
    I am sorry I have rambled.
    I encourage you to not underestimate the power of the populace to “get the message right” if someone would get the message out to them right now.

    • The reason the core message of Methodism will never get a mass audience is that people don’t want to work that hard. Warren offers a relatively pain-free, feel good Christianity that has all the appeal of soda pop, and all the lasting value. Sure, he mines good stuff from the faith, but as to a ten miles wide, two inches deep faith, you can’t find a better example. No, the practice of the means of grace, personal spiritual discipline, and balancing works of piety with acts of mercy as a way of life? Won’t appeal to the same number of people as you’re special, God loves you, you can have the life you want and be happy (if not rich…). United Methodism, at its best and most real, lacks the narcissistic allure that packs ’em in and sells books.

    • Pre-modern, poorly educated, equivalent to the lower-middle classes, pre-technological, message of justice for the underclasses/vengeance against the ruling class. We have so sanitized Wesley, it isn’t funny. For example, people love to run out Wesley’s “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” ignoring the heart of Wesley’s message — those who do not care for the poor (the listening audience) would not escape the fiery wrath and punishment of God (the oppressing classes). The solution was to live in loving community, caring for one another, and living a life pleasing to God. For people lacking the skills to read, no TV, no entertainments to speak of, traveling preachers offering a pathway to a better life were extremely popular. Read some of the sermons of George Whitfield — he was the closest thing to a television evangelist pre-TV. There is no doubt to his popular appeal. Striving for righteousness was the key to ensuring that the poor and oppressed would not be confused with the rich and powerful before the judgment seat. In its own way, as populist as Warren, Hamilton, or Hybels — but always with a much greater expectation of discipline and personal responsibility.

  3. Ah, hate to interject…but feel “led”…

    Has anyone read the latest Bishops’ Letter. the one we are supposedly reading aloud to our congregations? Here’s a real-time example of why we are “drying out” our congregations, producing dessicated churches with our methods, rather than ones born of the Spirit..

    We keep on doing church as if it’s primarily cerebral engagement, better arguments, superior historical practices…and are stubbornly proud of it.

  4. If the bishops really wanted to understand their audience, they might visit a local gun show or take in the Sarah Palin bus tour…that is, drop by the tax collector’s booth…without disdain and condemnation.

  5. It really makes me mad that stupidity is one of the major qualities of modern Christianity. Don’t we realize that more and more people in the world look at us and think we are idiots? The Shack is a bad story. It is poorly written. It is superstitous and silly. I am trying to get my friends from college to accept that you can be smart and be Christian, but they can point to thousands of things like The Shack and say, “See? Your church is full of gullible, simple, ignorant people. There’s no WAY we would have anything to do with it.”

    Thanks for at least offering a glimmer of hope. It is so nice to know that there are some smart people who are Christian that point to this crap and call it what it really is. But I’m not sure how much longer I can stay in any church that thinks The Shack is a worthwhile book for Christians. With every passing day I am increasingly embarrassed to admit I am Christian. Please, please, please keep writing this blog. I need at least one voice of reason to share with my friends.

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