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

    • I’m not exactly sure. In my conversation, the broad concept was communicating the gospel to a mass audience. (Which was where they comment about content not being as important as method came in). I’ve seen a variety of interviews with Young, and I have no idea what the intention and appeal might be for the Congress, but maybe they have a very clear vision for his time there. I feel — and be clear this is just my opinion — is that there are thousands of speakers with greater depth and more to say to UMs than Young, but maybe I will be proven wrong. We can only hope.

  1. Ah, why did you bring up the subject? When did we start having deep theological conversations? We are now so-into rethinking “church” in postchristian categories.

  2. Dan-

    Would you mind describing Paul Young’s theology in a sentence or two and why he is your theological antithesis? Thanks

  3. Dan–

    Dan Dan Dan my fundamentalist friend(LOL OMG I always thought you were just a normal middle of the Road UMC)!! There are universalists in the UMC. He isn’t Bishop Spong he is a Universalist. You may want to give you readers a specific post as to where your views differ.

  4. Laying aside the previous cheeky respose. I think you make some assumptions that may not bear out in practice.
    First, many seminaries right now do at best a poor job of preparing people for ministry. I think your value of them while appreciated, places way too much value on the services they render. Most clergy are at best ineffective at sharing their faith beyond the door of the building at worst just collecting a paycheck. I am questiong whether we need anywhere near the amount of MDiv clergy that exist. Would we be better off scrapping MDiv and going back to our roots of local pastors.

    In addition, UMC theology has at best is in conflict between the extremist leftist and fundamentalist branches that are vying for power for at least ten years. The fact that we allow for groups such as Good News to have ANY clout says volumes about who wears the pants in the family.

    Finally, this denomination is a ruderless ship at best. The Bishops and their cabinets and agencies refuse to make the changes needed to reinvigorate the flocks let alone enforce theological discipline beyond homosexuality. They are more concerned with apportionments to pay their salaries and fund pet projects than a focus on building and sustaining local communities.

    What is needed is an emergency General Conference to deal with these issues.The rumor mill has it that it is being mulled over in certain sectors but lets be real vested interests don’t want to admit that a relaunch is needed. And I don’t feel that the powers that be have enough say to move the Church away from the cliff.

    • My value of the seminaries is that I talk to professors to see what they are saying. My implication in including their perspectives is that there isn’t a clear blame. Those who provide theological education can’t stand back and blame pastors — if pastors leave seminary unprepared to think theologically, there is shared responsibility. The inclusion of the one quote was MEANT to be ironic…

      Part of our problem is not that we don’t have a theology, but that we cannot apply fundamental practices of critical thinking to the theology we’ve got. We have TOO MUCH theology with no way to assess the comparative merits and value. I have in my files an angry email from a pastor in Tennessee who says it all for me: “We don’t need theology. We need faith!” This is a weird, slippery slope that leads us to glamorize celebrity pastors, read silly books, and seek simple solutions. I can’t figure out why we can’t have both theology AND faith…

      In context, I think you would agree that I talk alot about the lack of leadership in the church. I actually think we do have a rudder, but it does us no good when no one tends the tiller at the helm. We are merely drifting — we’re not heading toward anything. My analogy is that we are simply wandering in the wilderness, we’re not heading for any Promised Land… and surviving the wilderness is not what we are here for.

      I have watched the heart of the denomination sell its soul to outside consultants who operate by a totally different set of values. We have agencies, councils, and conferences blindly following the advice (for hundreds of thousands of dollars) who have not been raised or trained in the tradition, and they are very effectively making us who we were never intended to be. We are not looking to one another to figure out our future, nor are we looking to God. We are looking to consultants — God help us all.

      • My analogy is that we are simply wandering in the wilderness

        Perhaps we are in the wilderness by design. God sends his people into the wilderness from time to time.

        That is not to say we should be chasing after false messiahs.

  5. Dan,

    Thanks for this entry. It helped me get my blood pressure up for the long afternoon. If we seek to consecrate fame for ministry, why not go to Sarah Palin or Oprah for theology? Clergy used to be trained to know they were to be a theologian in community with others growing in faith–thank you for challenging us to examined life.

  6. Look over at the Presbyterians…their “renewal” conversation is a “hot house” chat, nothing more. It’s like looking in the mirror…

    The future won’t come through imitation of that form of church.

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