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.