John Chau and the Moral Obligation to be Intelligent

John Chau died last week, on the shores of the Sentinel Island and at the hands of its inhabitants. Long and notoriously reclusive, the island’s people are protected by law, both out of a desire to preserve their way of life, but also to protect them from Western illnesses which threaten genocide. Chau, determined to reach them for Jesus, died there, studded with arrows, shortly after arriving on the shore and ‘hollering’ that “Jesus loves you!” His story has been awash in the news, and the details have been intensely galvanizing. Was Chau, like Jim Elliot, a martyr for a lost people group? Or was he just another colonizing Westerner, intent on destroying indigenous populations in the name of a dangerously inflated religious ego? The jury remains out.

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There are things I want to say about Chau, and about how we Christians respond to him, but first I want to pause to consider more deeply these two competing narratives. On the one hand stands the Jim Elliot narrative. Elliot, passionate, moody, introspective, and compelling, felt a call to reach an Ecuadorean group called the Quechua in 1956. He, several friends, and their wives made their way down to Ecuador, fully knowing the dangers that might lie ahead. They made early contact with the group by means of flyovers. They reached out gently to meet the tribe and had initial success. Optimistic, they returned to continue their efforts. But something happened—we don’t know what—and there was a sudden change in the tribesmen. Instead of fellowship, without warning they began to cast spears. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully all died there. But such was not the end of their story. Covered by Life magazine, their example galvanized missions work in America. Not only that, but Elliot’s widow, Elisabeth, returned with the other widows to continue to reach out to the tribe, who eventually came to faith. Almost as a perfect statement on the whole story, Elliot had written in his diary, some time before, these compelling words, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” The story of Jim Elliot remains one of the most tragic, heroic, and compelling in the history of modern missions.

Through gates of splendor

Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of Jim and the other missionaries in this iconic book. Well worth a read, if you haven’t heard of it.

Was John Chau another Jim Elliot? In the minds of many, the answer is a self-evident “Yes.” He is called, knows the risks, takes them anyway, and out of obedience and a radical love for Jesus lays his life on the line to share the gospel. He, a fool for Christ, clearly gives what cannot be kept (his life) to gain what cannot be lost. In the minds of many Christians, Chau’s heavenly rewards are certain and secure.

But there is another narrative, one that tells us how much the world has changed since 1956. In this narrative, Chau is an egotistical colonist, who cannot bear to leave an indigenous people alone, even if his presence means potentially wiping them out completely. He is a foolhardy maniac, openly defying the laws of India to take a gospel the Sentinelese haven’t asked for, and potentially don’t need, and force them into the 21st century by means of it. The discomfort may run even deeper—in an age of consent, Chau’s insistence on advancing into a people group without their consent may come to look even like a kind of cultural rape. Behold, in Chau’s smiling face is embedded the insane Christian ego, violating the culture and conscience of a people, all the while telling them that “it’s for your own good.” It’s a disturbing picture.

At this point, given the material I’ve read about Chau, and given my current understanding of the picture, I must confess I am more inclined to see his death more as a tragic misstep than a heroic martyrdom. This is a situation that both could, and should have, been avoided. Irrespective, however, of the merits or demerits of Chau’s actions, I want in these brief comments to focus attention on the responses of many everyday Christians. Over the past week I’ve encountered their thoughts both in published articles and comments in response to those articles, and among my Christian peers there is a common, if not unanimous, move to praise Chau’s obedience. In their responses it is his very folly that is the central node of praise—he did what others wouldn’t do, he was obedient where others were afraid to be obedient, and his body now lies as a testimony to the future Sentinelese. Who knows, after all, whether or not this action might be the very beginning of their coming to faith?! What these sentiments exhibit, and what I want to focus on today, is our general Christian confusion between the fool and the foolhardy. More explicitly, what I detect in us is a deep suspicion of intelligence.

Moral obligation CoverRecently I read a fascinating essay by American educator John Erskine, “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent.” Writing in 1915, Erskine presents, appealing to various literary sources, a crisis in the Western mind. He writes,

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the hart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.” (5-6)

Our habit, ingrained on his account from the time of the Saxons till now, is to distrust the crafty, and to trust the simpleminded; that somehow simplemindedness is in itself a virtue, while intelligence is always mere shades away from vice. We are programmed now to be suspicious of scientists, of experts, of people with letters after their names, and to prize (at least sentimentally) homegrown wisdom and certain varieties of ‘common sense.’

Erskine takes issue with the prevalence of these sentiments, and perhaps the centre of his argument is as follows:

But as a race we seem as far as possible from realising that an action can intelligently be called good only if it contributes to a good end; that it is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end; and that any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious. (17-18)

ErskineGoodness, he argues, is not an innate property of the simple. Nor is vice an innate property of the intelligent. Instead, a given action is good or bad if it leads to (and is connected with) good or bad ends, and only the virtue of intelligence can calculate the metrics of those goods and bads. There is no value in foolhardy stupidity, or in a gung-ho bulldozing through barriers and walls, or in blind obedience to a simplistic understanding. In fact, Erskine argues, “any system of ethics that excuses [us] from that obligation is vicious.” In other words, any system that allows us to ignore the obligation to be intelligent, to think through causes and effects, to know and love the good in our circumstances, is a system which allows us to justify our actions based on factors that aren’t good. If we refuse to be guided by intelligence, in other words, we will be guided by our desires (such as our desire to be well thought of), or our fears (such as our fear of missing out), or our false conclusions (such as our bullheaded refusal to admit fault and make things right).

To some, I imagine this may sound like a kind of grand casuistry—an excuse mongering which dodges the pure call to obedience. Chau was obedient, God will provide, case closed. And yet we do have a direct command in scripture regarding our intelligence—to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Pause and think about that first clause for a moment. Wise as serpents. The serpent was the most crafty animal God had made. So crafty, in fact, that it becomes nearly synonymous with the Devil himself. And we are to be like him in that way. Crafty. Devious. Plotting. Intelligent. All while remaining innocent and pure. Reading the ardent supporters of Chau, it is not hard to imagine that we’ve read the passage in reverse, and in obedience to our misunderstanding we are now wise as doves and harmless as serpents. Constitutionally stupid (doves), we commit harms on others (snakebites).

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sometimes we forget that the snake is itself a creation of God, and that this suggests it is part of the ‘good’ of the whole creation… !

Curiously, this very morning I read another scripture that seems to apply the same lessons—this time, from the mouth of that cranky prophet, Amos:

14Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
And thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you,
Just as you have said!
15 Hate evil, love good,
And establish justice in the gate!
Perhaps the Lord God of hosts
May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:14-15)

The warning, in other words, is to utilize our intelligence for the execution of just judgment—to evaluate our circumstances and make a choice based on our comprehension of good and evil. The danger of ignoring the good, and of neglecting the knowledge of evil as a possibility, is to fall to judgment. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

What judgment we make about Chau, and whether or not he is a martyr for the Christian faith, may have to wait on the perspective of eternity. What cannot wait for that eternal perspective, is our duty and mandate to access and exercise our moral intelligence. There is no value in the foolhardy per se, there is great harm to be done by being wilfully simpleminded. And those who urge obedience at the expense of careful, wise reflection, potentially urge us onto courses of destruction.

Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

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#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

Pride parade portrait

#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.

Eugene Peterson and the Smell of Barbecue

The Christian world is this week awash with stories and reflections on Eugene Peterson, pastor, spiritual theologian, and author best known for his multi-million selling Bible paraphrase, The Message. In fact, not only the Christian world, but the New York Times and the Washington Post each published obituaries for this eminent pastor who was, by all accounts, very nearly the opposite of a ‘public figure.’ What was the appeal of this unlikely public pastor?

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I have only a limited personal encounter with Peterson. I attended Regent College from 2005-2009, where Eugene had been on staff, and while I was there his presence was still very much felt in what Regent did and the kind of place Regent wanted to be. He had become an inextricable part of the ethos of the school. For my part, I’d honestly never heard of the guy before showing up in Vancouver, and so I, quite naturally, began a program of reading some of his books, and listening to some of his recorded courses, available in the school library. I listened to Soulcraft (a study in Ephesians). I read Reversed Thunder, his book on John’s Revelation. I dabbled in The Message. And later, when I was in full time ministry, I read his The Pastor: A Memoir.

Peterson_Pastor MemoirAt this point, I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never really been able to connect with Peterson’s work. I found his teaching in Soulcraft lackluster and forgettable. With the exception of Reversed Thunder (which I hold to be one of the best books on John’s Revelation available), I simply don’t like his writing. The Message—ugh!—The Message reads to me like a car with one square wheel, all herky-jerky and awkward and nearly unreadable. I can’t stomach it. When I read his biography of the life of a pastor I couldn’t shake the lurking feeling that “this simply isn’t my story.” If Eugene Peterson’s pastoral soul represents one shape of gear, and my pastoral soul another, then, regrettably, we are tooled for incompatibility.

All the same, for scores and scores of my friends and fellow pastors, Peterson’s writings have encouraged, restored hope, challenged, and been a balm. To read their stories, for many of them Peterson’s writing saved their ministries, if not their souls. (Which, incidentally, makes me suspect that the problem of connection I feel in reading Peterson’s stuff might lie with me.) They look to Peterson like a father, a friend they’ve never met, a spiritual guide and rock of stability, uniquely situated in our time to provide a bulwark against the present darkness. He gave them hope. But why?

Peterson_Long ObedienceI can’t help but conclude that a portion of Peterson’s appeal lay in his retiring attitude. He wasn’t interested in fame. He didn’t set himself up to be a public figure, with a large ministry and wide range of influence. Instead, he sought faithfulness in the small plot of a church which he and his wife had planted. The affirmation of small church, small obedience, is very likely a key factor in his ability to encourage the pastors I know, for whom the allure and appeal of ‘big’ churches and ‘big’ ministries is a constant temptation. In an age of church growth, marketability, and relevance, Peterson championed small obedience and long faithfulness. Additionally, I wonder if part of Peterson’s appeal lay in his reticence to align with the political wing of modern evangelicalism. Sometimes, giving one’s allegiance to a Christian figure has meant giving one’s allegiance to a political position or party. But in Peterson we encountered a Christian figure who was deeply counter-cultural and yet starkly unlike the array of alternatives.

In light of this, I confess a further worry—what is it about people like Peterson that drives us, in the Church, to make of them heroes, public figures, and celebrities? Why, despite Peterson’s avowed desire to avoid such popularity, do we insist on giving it to him? One of my professors at Regent told me that once he was in line with Eugene to get a coffee in Regent’s atrium. Students would come up and stare at him, as if they hoped that some of the glory might rub off on them. At that moment, my professor realized one of the reasons why it was that Eugene was retiring: he felt was being made too much of. Why is it that instead of taking Peterson’s teaching as it was stated—to pursue a long obedience in the same direction—that we inveterately try to sidle up to him so as to catch a bit of the glory, to hasten our own spirituality through proximate encounter? Why, to the man who taught us to avoid all short cuts in spirituality, would we turn him into a short cut?

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Regent’s Bookstore/Coffee Shop is a lovely place to visit.

I can think of many reasons to answer that question, some of them less than complementary, but I will conclude with a generous one. When I arrived at Regent in 2005, language of Eugene’s presence, and stories of his teaching and life, were still fresh in the air. It seemed to me that he had only left the place a year before. It was only reading his obituary the other day that I realized he had retired from Regent in 1998! For seven years the memory of his presence had remained so fresh that when I arrived I thought he had only just left. That is an astonishing, unprecedented legacy. Upon reflection, it makes me think of Ephesians 5:1-2, where Paul writes the following: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Those closing two words, a “fragrant aroma” are in Greek the words οσμη ευωδιας (osme euodias). They are the words used throughout the Old Testament to describe the fragrance of a burnt offering to the Lord—it is the smell, in other words of barbecue. You know the smell, it wafts over the neighbourhood, and makes you wonder if, just maybe, you might gatecrash your neighbour’s dinner for a taste. It is alluring, and good, and calls you to goodness. In the same way, Paul says, Christ’s life is for us such a fragrant aroma, wafting over other lives, calling us to participate and join in. Furthermore, we are to imitate that life so that our lives become similarly fragrant. It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s life gave off such an odor that seven years after departing Regent his aroma still brought life to the place.

I’ve been immensely blessed to know several people in life for whom this aroma is part and parcel of their walk with the Lord. Where they’ve been, you know it, because the vestiges of their presence hangs about. They are naturally attractive people—we want to be around them, to soak up their goodness, their perspective, to ‘catch’ some of the glory if possible. I never met Eugene Peterson in person, but it seems clear to me that he was such a person as well. And yet the very best thing that such people can do for us is to remind us that our lives give off an odor, too. To that realization, we can only ask, “What kind of odor will it be?”

Rest well in Christ, Eugene. You gave off a good smell. May we learn from that and, instead of turning to you as a proxy, seek to do the same.

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I Used to Know What was Wrong with Willow Creek

I used to know what was wrong with Willow Creek. After my parents separated in 1991, my mom and I attended there. It was massive, and well-produced, and on the whole not a bad place for a recently divorced single mom and her eleven-year-old son. I joined her there for about seven years. We would go both to weekend services and mid-week services. The regular teaching staff included Bill Hybels, Lee Strobel, and John Ortberg. We used to eat in the food court. I played in the orchestra. We made friends. I was baptized in the pond out front.

Willow Creek Sanctuary

Naturally, I began to develop opinions about the place—many of which developed further after I’d left and began to take on some more formal theological education. The language of being “seeker-sensitive” was in the air—we all knew what was going on. Willow was attempting a model of attraction by simplification and production. Simplification meant reducing to the absolute minimum those churchy things that might turn away seekers—hymns, theologically heavy sermons, even the representation of a cross. Production meant controlling the weekly service outcomes—professional musicians and singers, perfect timing, lighting and camera work. Willow both authored and mastered these techniques with immense, almost unimaginable success. By the time we were there some twenty thousand people were attending on a given weekend.

NIV Application Commentary

The image at the bottom is of Willow’s Barrington, Illinois sanctuary. Is the message, “use our commentary and you’ll preach to groups THIS size!”?

Over time, I came to form judgments about the place. Willow was, indeed, successful—and yet it was also shallow. Even as a young man I missed biblical teaching. Even as a young man I could tell that I was being fed diet, Jenny Craig Christianity. There was meat to be had, but I was being offered salad without dressing. Clearly, Willow was also business-like. How else would it be possible to manage 20K people on a weekend without a strong management system? Things moved like clockwork, and it showed. But that same business efficiency masked the ultimately superficial nature of the enterprise. Things functioned, and people were busy, and everybody had a job, and friendships were made—but did it result in greater Christlikeness? Could shallow and superficial teaching generate deep and thoughtful Christians? No, it couldn’t, and my convictions were confirmed a few years back when Willow issued a public apology for being too soft on teaching the Bible. It was an astonishing reversal.

I was troubled, as time passed, at how other churches were eager to ape the Willow Creek model. It appeared that under the influence of Willow’s success they, hungry for their own success, began to implement degrees of simplification and production. The secret to church growth would be programs, lighting, timing, and an ethic of theological laxity. In one of the worst cases, I remember reading about a pastor who attended a Willow Creek leadership summit, and, returning to his home church, announced that he knew just what they needed to revitalize their ministry: theater seats. They would remove their pews and put in theater seats. That would get the butts in the door.

I don’t regret attending Willow for those seven years of my life, and yet I never loved the place. Having moved on, I continued to believe that it served a kind of purpose. A lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise go to church attended Willow. In a church of 20K certainly some—if not quite a few—of its members must be good Christian people.

Hybels bookI could make my peace with Willow Creek because I used to know what was wrong with it. Not anymore. Just a few months ago news began to break about some serious allegations regarding Bill Hybels, Willow’s founding and senior pastor, leadership guru and megachurch patriarch. First in the Chicago Tribune, then other rumors and stories, and lately in the New York Times, we have read how (allegedly, but is seems pretty certain), Hybels has sexually harassed quite a number of his female associates over the years. These were events that took place during my time at Willow. They were happening behind closed doors, and with some frequency, and apparently not a few people knew that Hybels may not be the most safe person to be around. This, the same Bill Hybels who authored the book, Who You Are When No One’s Looking: Choosing Consistency, Resisting Compromise. The irony would be laughable if it didn’t induce vomiting.

Suddenly, there’s much more wrong with Willow Creek than I had anticipated, and my previous critiques, which I could consider somewhat benign, are now more insidious. It’s a rule of thumb that (Protestant) churches carry the DNA of their founding pastors. Was he a gregarious, outgoing preacher? In time that comes to shape the congregation. Was he a reflective, thoughtful counsellor? In time, so also the congregation. Was he short tempered, divisive, and double-faced? So too the congregation. The DNA of Bill Hybels saturates and overshadows the Willow infrastructure. And that’s a frightening thing to realize. There’s now something poisonous running through everything with associations to Willow Creek. The best comparison is to imagine that you found out that MacDonalds, for years, has been grinding up puppies and mixing them into its french fries. Upon discovery of this you might become sick at your stomach. You’d probably never be able to eat them again. Willow has mixed something just as wicked into its brand.

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Here’s Brené Brown, speaking (prophetically?) at a previous leadership summit.

Willow Creek’s model promulgated a fundamental expediency about ministry, but with these revelations it appears more than ever that their expediency was influenced by a hunger for power. Willow was eager to be the best, it was quick to believe its own success. To this hunger for power was added protectionism—defending, and even masking Hybels’s concerns because in many ways he was the brand. And, fundamentally, these both reflect a corrupting utilitarianism—if a thing works, we go with it. Hybels worked, and therefore we’ve got to keep going with him. This is the poison that now infects the Willow Creek brand.

In the year 2000, in a move that now screams of incredible irony, Hybels invited then president Bill Clinton to join the global leadership summit, during the Monica Lewinski investigation. The Bills sat across from one another, the pastor offering solace (and… what? acceptance?) to the president. And yet behind the scenes the two were far more alike than we had imagined. Both were using their positions of power to mask corrupt character and decrepit behavior.

US President Bill Clinton (R) answers Willow Creek

One of the things we have to be careful about in these matters is assuming that correlation is causation—just because two events can be linked does not mean that one was necessarily the cause of the other. Did Willow’s weak theology lead to pastoral misconduct? Probably not—especially since churches with solid theology also commit pastoral misconduct. And yet what becomes prominent in this present Willow nightmare is the presence of utilitarianism and the love of power. Is it not the case that a culture of expediency unmoored from reflective orthodoxy creates the conditions for other sins of power? But hang on—is it not also the case that sins of power become self-perpetuating, encouraging greater laxity and utilitarianism? Which came first? Moral failure, or bad theological praxis? It’s impossible to say, but one thing is true—utilitarianism gets masked and hidden in the church, masked in particular by the promise of power and success. It is that power and success that Willow has sold to the churches of the world. It is the poison at the heart of the Willow model.

The fallout is disastrous. Willow leadership models have influenced countless numbers of Christians globally. Willow ecclesiological models have encouraged utilitarian approaches to ministry. And now all of it is impacted by this. “Disaster” might be too weak a word.

Paul, writing to his disciple Timothy, commanded the following, “Keep yourself and your doctrine, remain in them; for doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tm 4:16). Keep yourself, Timothy. Guard your life, your holiness, your purity, your sense of identity. Keep also your doctrine, preserve it with the same fervor as you do your bodily life. And by so doing you will save both yourself and those who hear you. Your life and your doctrine save your hearers, Timothy. It’s both. Willow Creek has failed to keep its life, and it has failed to keep its doctrine. The fallout from this is just beginning. May God have mercy on His Church.

Orientalism–A Fifth and Final Response (on Islam)

I very much enjoyed my read of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is an important book, and it has helped me to form my thoughts on quite a number of subjects. In my series of responses, I have appropriated his central concept broadly, but it is important to note that Said’s focus throughout is with reference to the Orient as Egypt and the Levant, and with special attention to Islam. No negotiation of his book is complete without some coming to terms with his thoughts on Islam. This final reflection on Orientalism will attempt to do just that. I’ve got four things to say.

Orientalism_Reading1) The Orient, for Said, is the Islamic world. I noted this a moment ago, but it is worth stressing. As an historical fact, the Orient, when the concept of the Orient was invented, and Orientalism, when that concept was emerging in Western usage, both had for their initial reference points the Islamic East. Historically, we here refer to Napoleon’s conquering of Egypt, and of England’s presence in Palestine and the Levant. We also note that the original journey of the Orient Express was from Paris to Constantinople—i.e., the Orient. Said, of course, as a Palestinian author, is keenly aware of this history in a personal sense, and that awareness colours the whole of the book.

2) If Orientalism is true, then it follows that Islam has been injuriously misread by the West. Orientalism, I have stated numerous times in various ways, is an intersection of knowledge and power where the gaze of the West has fallen on the other in such a way that the other loses agency, is flattened, and is fetishized (among other things). Each of these has clearly been in effect when the West has encountered Islam. Islam has been othered. It is viewed, first, as an outsider element, one which reflexively gives fresh self-definition to the Western eye. In that process, the West has held the power of definition in discourse—the conversation has been dominated by Western categories of what constitutes Islam, and Islam is made to answer to those Western categories. Consequently, Islam has been flattened—both ideologically and individually. Ideologically, textures and complexities in Islamic belief are treated reductionistically (they all want Jihad and nothing else), and individually each Islamic individual is viewed as a carbon-copy of a radicalized caricature (they all want Jihad and nothing else). Said stresses this clearly,

The point I want to conclude with now is to insist that the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like ‘America,’ ‘The West’ or ‘Islam’ and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed, their murderous effectiveness vastly reduced in influence and mobilizing power. (Orientalism, xxii)

In addition to this, Islam has been subjected to a number of fetishizations—historically, sexual ones (Said notes these), but lately subjected to a fetishization of violence and bestiality. The West is able to imagine, again for its own benefit, all manner of violences and evil perpetuated by an Islamic world.

Islamic Agressors

If these are the only images we see, we are bound to draw certain conclusions about the Islamic world.

Once again, if Orientalism is true (and I believe it is)—that is, if Orientalism accurately describes a mental process by which the West has ‘come to terms’ with the non-West in Islam—then this is cause for a serious re-evaluation of how the West and Islam interact. Wrongs have been done, and are being done, which inhibit fruitful communication, and which perpetuate worldviews of dehumanization which fall well beneath the values of the West. We can, and must, do better.

3) And yet, it seems to me that Said overplays the innocence of Islam in his book. Repeatedly, Said hammers the West for its treatment of Islam. Doubtless many of his assertions are correct. Doubtless also, he is sounding a corrective note against historic abuses. In charity we can certainly read the book with those considerations in mind and account for what we might consider to be his excesses. And yet, it is also historically the case that not all Western encounters with Islam are based on Orientalism. For example, when Islam emerged in the 8th century, no such thing as “the West”—as a modern concept—yet existed. And Islam’s emergence on the Arabian peninsula meant that it’s first encounters with Christianity were in the Christian East—in places such as Constantinople, which is, by definition, the Orient. Those first encounters, then, were not encounters where knowledge and power othered the foreigner, but rather battles where truth claims were examined. Chief among them was this: is Jesus Godin-the-flesh, or was he merely another prophet on the way to Mohammed? (It is worth observing that, on some accounts, Islam looks a great deal like a kind of radical Arianism—a rejection of Christ’s divinity and preservation of the holiness of the Father-God.)

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There’s lots of information about the history of Islamic expansion/aggression. It’s worth your time to read up on it or watch a helpful video.

In addition to this, Islam—beginning with Mohammed as its leader—from the very first engaged in a war of conquest with the Christian world (note: neither East nor West, but entire). That period of conquest involved aggressive violence, invasion, and a real threat to the Christian way of life. All that to say that when the West considers Islam, while certain intellectual abuses are undoubtedly at play, there is also a deeper history which informs their engagement. That history cannot be reduced, or explained away, by means of Orientalism.

4) Orientalism, then, is both a blessing and a liability. It is a blessing because of the attention it calls us to pay to the history of knowledge where that knowledge intersects with power. It is a blessing because it places a beneficial hesitation on Western claims about the non-West. It is a blessing because it seeks to restore agency to non-Western persons. And yet the liability of Orientalism is that as a compelling theory of understanding it oversimplifies—or even simply underplays—valid truth claims and vital historical incidents. The label, as always, does not an argument make (see the previous post on Bulverism).

In each of these posts I’ve tied these thoughts into the mission of the Church. As I close these reflections on Orientalism, the note I want to highlight is that of listening. It seems to me that these kinds of discussions often get scuttled by debate. Facts get thrown back and forth, names and labels get applied, and little progress is made except in the growth of contempt. Sometimes I feel that my fellow Christians fear that to practice listening will mean having to give up on truth. But this isn’t the case. To listen well doesn’t mean to give up, it means to try to hear a matter from the other’s perspective as clearly as possible. Listening makes us smarter, and more empathetic, and when we listen well we become better at articulating those points which we feel are truly salient to a discussion. For Christianity to listen to the Islamic world does not mean the same thing as for Christianity to capitulate with it. It is just such listening, I believe, that we most need—on both sides of the divide.

Don’t Preach Like Andy Stanley

Atlanta preacher Andy Stanley has crossed my news feed several times of late. Most recently, he was publicly criticized for a sermon where he troublingly interpreted Acts 15 by saying that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. Numerous articles emerged (one of the best in First Things) to discuss Andy’s dangerous theological direction.

And yet, not long ago ,Andy was also in the Christian news circuit, listed among a set of the most influential Evangelical preachers. Stanley, the son of megachurch and radio preacher Charles Stanley, has piloted NorthPoint Community Church for years, an Atlanta megachurch with some 39,000 people in attendance weekly at its six campuses. He is an author, a traveling public speaker, and used to publish podcasts on leadership to which I would listen, in another life.

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In response to the recent furore over Andy’s April 29th comments about the Old Testament, I watched the YouTube video of the sermon. While indeed it was the case that I found the content of his sermon troubling, even more than that I found the sermon itself—his delivery, style, and manner, to be alarming. Since Stanley is so highly regarded as a preacher, and since I spend a lot of time thinking about preaching, I thought I’d suggest some reasons why we ought not to preach like Andy Stanley. I’ve got three such suggestions today.

#1) Are you Controlling?
Throughout his sermon Stanley repeated two phrases so many times that I lost count. He would assert “Now this is important,” and he would command the audience to “Look up here.” Now, if Stanley had digressed from his main point, and then used phrases like these to gather the congregation back to the main point again, I can see why they might be useful. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, these were deployed in what I can only guess was an attempt to try to keep the congregation’s focus razor sharp on what Stanley was doing at a given moment. They exhibited, to me, what appeared to be a desire for control over the congregation—control over their attention, their minds, their focus for the duration of the service. I think this kind of (attempted) control is really dangerous for preachers.

It is dangerous, among other things, because it creates a climate of distrust and of performance. When a preacher continuously labours to keep your attention, it is because, at heart, he doesn’t believe you’re really listening, because he doesn’t trust you. This opens the door for phrases like Stanley’s, for gimmicks, and for any number of “creative” means for keeping congregations interested (movie clips, song lyrics, images, etc.). It also creates a culture of performance—after all, the really faithful Christians are the ones who hang on every word, who take extensive notes, and who can repeat the points of the sermon easily at lunch after the service. Those who can’t are, by implication, lesser Christians.

I was once at a Youth event with a guest preacher who was a short, muscular, African-American man. As is often the case at weekend Youth events, the youths stay up late fellowshipping, playing, and eating cup noodles (you can pick your own snack, but I was with Asians and cup noodles after midnight are a must-have). After one (or maybe two) such nights, one of my members fell asleep in the back row of the hall where we were meeting. This was unsurprising—not only had he been up late, but he was a generally tired guy. Well, the speaker noted this from the front, and then suddenly left the front, marched to the back, and sat on my member’s lap! He then whispered in his ear (I found this out later), “Do you think you can stay awake now?” From that point on, everybody stayed awake, but when I asked them about it later they told me it was because they were terrified that the muscular speaker might do something to them! He had won his point, but lost his audience in the process.

Cup Noodles_Kimchi

When I was a beginning preacher I had an idea of the perfect sermon that looked a lot like what I think is going on in Stanley’s sermon. I thought that the ideal message would keep a congregation spellbound for the duration of the sermon—locked in attention, immobile, perfectly hanging on every word. Toward that end, I used to refuse to give out notes for sermons because I felt that if I were doing my job properly, they wouldn’t need any notes. Then, one Sunday morning, a young woman came up to me after the service and told me that she was seeking God, and enjoyed coming to church, but that sometimes she just couldn’t follow along with the sermons. In that moment I heard God speak to me with impressive clarity. He said, “Jeremy, will you keep this young woman from learning about Me because you have some stupid idea of what a sermon should be like?” I was immediately chastised, and from that time on I always printed and handed out notes for sermons. I also changed my philosophy of preaching. Instead of aiming for the pied-piper spellbound model of sermon, I realized that the very best sermons are when people stop listening to you completely because God is doing something in them. You’ve said something, and they begin to think about their lives, about what it means, about how the Word impacts them. I realized that losing people in this way was way more important than keeping them focused on me. And that meant, last of all, that the best sermons are the ones that provide easy ways for people to get back on board. “On ramps,” we used to call them in Seminary—phrases like, “Back to John 14,” or “Returning to our main point, that Jesus heals today…”—these phrases bring a congregation back to the text, and show how a preacher can guide without being controlling.

#2) Are you Angry?
Another thing stood out to me prominently during the 40-odd minutes of Stanley’s sermon—there wasn’t a lot of joy. There was intensity, focus, and drive—there were moments of elevated energy and a few jokes, but on the whole there was something monochromatic. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the emotion which dominated Stanley’s sermon was actually anger. Now, anger is a perfectly suitable emotion for a sermon when it is directed at a just cause, or framed by a situation that calls for anger, but throughout this sermon it felt more like anger was the passive, baseline emotion which drove everything along. Not only did I find this really interesting, I realized that it might explain a common preaching phenomenon.

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Are you able to discern the actual line between intensity and anger?

I found this interesting for a number of reasons, not least of them because I’ve been someone who has had to discern and diagnose my own anger, which had become the passive emotional baseline in my own life. When my own anger was undiagnosed, it leaked out through my energy, my creativity, and my relationships. Anger that is unprocessed doesn’t go away—it stays and festers, shaping, distorting, and limiting all other emotions. It took time for me to recognize this pattern and begin to reframe it accordingly.

As I thought about this angry sermon, I had a sudden realization. Preachers often talk about “really feeling it,” or “really preaching.” They may use other words, but it describes the emotional state of being totally engaged in the sermon, of really feeling like you are preaching. Often, preachers will diagnose this experience as a work of the Spirit, moving the preacher to this excited emotional level—furthermore, they often take it as a sign of God’s favour with what they are preaching. But what, I wondered, if many preachers have simply misdiagnosed their anger? What if this heightened emotional state isn’t the rush God’s Spirit, but rather the rush of my own anger? The symptoms would be the same—a sense of energy, of elevation, potentially an adrenaline rush, followed by a subsequent emotional crash. Side effects would be frustration at distractions—a baby crying, a person getting up to use the restroom, or mishaps with sound equipment. Preachers who feel they are “really preaching” are often, to my knowledge, also really keyed up.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think it is true. I’ve listened to some of my friends preach, and their sense of ‘feeling it’ is outwardly indistinguishable from anger. Not long ago I listened to Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture (for First Things). In it he was affable, brilliant, and prophetic. I decided then to listen to his MLK50 sermon, in which he was, well, angry. If the difference between the first talk and the second was that the second was a sermon, then this seems to confirm my thesis even further.

Russell Moore

There are lots of reasons for pastors to feel angry—their own personal pain, undiagnosed wounds, a sense of the burden of ministry, frustration at members, and so forth. And the truth of the matter is not that pastors ought never to feel angry, but that we’ve got to examine, diagnose, and process it so that it doesn’t leak out into our ministries. Unless anger is specifically called for, I would suggest that the dominant baseline emotions for a preacher ought to be either peace, joy, or a combination of the two.

#3) Are you Preaching Bad Theology?
I think this final question requires the least amount of reflection. As I said earlier, I’ve listened to Stanley’s sermon in full, and I feel that it is deeply theologically troubling. Even a charitable read, which focuses on Stanley’s intentions, leaves much to be desired with regard to Acts 15, the Gentile inclusion in the Church, and the (ongoing!) role of the Old Testament in the moral lives of God’s Church.

The thing is, good theology isn’t Stanley’s primary goal. His primary goal—which he has executed with great effectiveness—is to build a church “where unchurched people love to attend.” As far as it goes, this is a solid goal, and it’s clear that Stanley has succeeded enormously. It is also clear from the content of his sermon that this goal is operating in the background of his theology—his desire to “unhitch” the Old Testament is rooted in the perception that the Old Testament might keep people from coming to faith. In this, he sees the story of Acts 15 and the Gentile inclusion as a kind of snapshot of his own ministry (where the Jerusalem council is also creating a church where un-churched people will love to attend).

Andy Stanley_Old Testament

A screenshot from the April 29 Sermon.

But note—this seems to suggest that Stanley’s theology is being shaped by his vision, rather than his vision being shaped by theology. And this means we’ve got to have some discernment of values. We’ve got to be careful that our local vision for the church doesn’t war against a) the scriptures, b) the creeds, c) the church global. Theology is that funny chimera born within the midst of those three features, and while it is by no means monolithic, it does have a discernible centre. If my desire to create a church were unchurched people love to attend begins to cause me to edit and reshape some of that theological centre, then I’m stepping into enormously dangerous territory. That’s why there is a discernment of values. The Church is allowed enormous, almost astonishing, freedom of local expression, and yet she must maintain her ties to those centres of focus. When “local expressions” begin to trump the orthodox middle, it is then that we’ve got serious problems.

Andy Stanley has a powerful ministry with enormous impact. But don’t be like him. Be like you, and serve where God has planted you, and try to do it without controlling, without a spirit of anger, and in solid theological company.

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!