Since my last post, a number of events have transpired in reformed evangelicalism that I would say are connected to the idea of “guruification.” Some of the delay in posting has been due to not wanting to “pile on.” Enough time has passed (and I’m on a blogging spree these days), so hopefully I’ll be posting more often on this subject.
How did we get here?
The Shaping of a Market?
I vividly remember the introduction to the 2008 Together for the Gospel conference: knowing that thousands would turn out for several popular speakers, Mark Dever and others leveraged this “market” to get their message out. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Influence can be wielded appropriately or inappropriately. The kicker is when influence is used (intentionally or not) to create followers for gurus instead of pointing people heavenward.
How did this market come to be? Many potential (and complementary) answers come to mind, but surely one of them must be: the church’s expectations for its celebrities largely came to match the surrounding culture. In short, I believe an evangelical fixation with celebrities has, by and large, overcome the ecclesiastical culture commended by Scripture.
Matthew 23 – Woe to the Gurus
In the midst of the woes that Jesus pronounces over the Pharisees, he indicts our own subculture that is so often obsessed with celebrities:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Rabbis, fathers, instructors… none shall be so named. The greatest, the one exalted among Christ’s community, will be the servant of all who humbles self above all. This looks little like modern evangelical culture that mimics corporate America, establishes unbiblical hierarchies in local churches that prevent accountability, and is obsessed with church growth gurus, theological gurus, preaching gurus, etc.
The hoarding of power, responsibility, authority in individuals in our churches is a not-so-distant cousin of the Pharisees, and it can make otherwise godly leaders self-obsessed.
How do we think about the structures of our churches, the accountability of our teachers, and the responsibility of the laity in mitigating against such a culture of celebrity? I’ll write about that next time (hopefully soon).
They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
I’ve thought about the above verses and their import for evangelicalism for at least three years now. Over the last 18 months, I’ve been writing and thinking more intently about it, observing how “the greatest among us” develop within evangelicalism and how evangelicalism in turn treats those “greatest.”
This presupposition drives my thinking: the perceived “greatest among us” in evangelicalism are the pastor-teachers. They are invited to conferences, they draw large crowds at their churches, they write and sell popular books. They carry a following that extends beyond their local churches, and many times Christians implicitly identify more with the individual leaders then with a particular church or organization. Don’t get me wrong: having particularly gifted individuals known in the broader evangelical world is a wonderful thing. But the proliferation of influence by a few often has unintended consequences, both for those who follow the few and those who aspire to be like the few.
In this series I want to explore four contrasts between two kinds of pastor-teachers: “leaders” and “gurus.” I’ve chosen the latter term for reasons that will hopefully be immediately apparent. Consider:
Leaders are accountable to those they serve and lead.
Gurus are accountable either to their peers or to no one and don’t seek such accountability.
Leaders share their responsibility and the power it affords
Gurus cling to their responsibility and power.
Leaders raise up other leaders and hope they will be surpassed by those leaders.
Gurus ensure that no one in their midst will surpass them.
Leaders point disciples to the one Rabbi.
Gurus gather disciples to themselves.
Before I explore these four contrasts further, I want to examine 1) how the “market” in evangelicalism has become ripe for gurus to thrive, and 2) how the market sometimes makes gurus out of people who don’t want to be gurus at all. That’s for next time.
Or it least not always. As a “type A” personality, it’s my tendency to throw myself at the most difficult tasks. As a sinful man, it’s my tendency to think that whatever difficult task I’m involved in is the most important thing.
For instance, Hebrew in seminary was far harder (for me) than being a husband and a dad. But that doesn’t mean it was more important. No, in the Scriptures I am nowhere called to be an excellent Hebrew student (although I should do all things to his glory and with all my might); but as a man with a wife and children, I am objectively called to be a godly husband and father. That is most important. When difficult things come along, I find myself checking to see whether or not they’re important. This triage, I feel, is another way of expressing the truth of Matthew 6:33:
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
I’m hoping to post more along this theme in the months to come as a way of thinking out loud on the topic.
Well, it has been awhile. I’ve been writing, but not posting, for the last 18 months or so. My MDiv studies have consumed the vast majority of my time, not to mention working three jobs, getting a new addition to the family, and starting up ThM thesis research. Now that I’m done with the MDiv, I plan on writing far more often here (a couple times a week, I’m hoping).
First up are some reflections on marriage, family, and juggling a busy life, followed by a series on the “Gurufication of American Evangelicalism.” Concurrently, I’m hoping to explain the new taxonomy for posts that I’m adopting (as I mention in the updated “About” page).
I’m looking forward to writing more in lieu of the weekly work of the MDiv. I also hope to share more as I dig deeply in studies for my ThM thesis on Revelation, ethics, and reception history.
I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. - Psalm 3:5
The increasing consumption of information leads to insulation in our personal lives while giving an ostensible broadness in our interactions with the wider world. This was the conclusion from my last post. As more information is imbibed, we have less time for that which should be most important and immediate to us. But the exchange of information in increasing manner has another implication.
If you use the internet, your life is archived someplace. Regardless of how careful you are, your personal information resides someplace. Between cookies, IP logs, memorized form fields, and the increasing tendency for social networking to record everything… well, you get the point. My contention: to be a consumer, you must also be a contributor. And that puts us into a quandary as information exchange continues to multiply with each successive generation.
To be a part of the system, I must contribute. And, quite simply, the machine doesn’t allow us the luxary of saying “no” to ever increasing amounts of participation in distributing information about ourselves.
It reminds me of the plot in a science fiction novel I read near the end of high school. The Light of Other Days posits that there will come such a time as mankind can limitlessly view the past through technology. It’s not a book I would recommend per se – part of their observation of the past includes the discovery that Jesus was not virgin born – but the ideas contained therein seem to be prophetic when we look at all that is taking place around us.
In the book there are two contrasting responses: the rejection of such technology by people whose spend their entire lives wrapped in sheets to avoid the public eye, and the wholesale acceptance of it by the masses. Do these responses find a parallel today? It would seem to be so… take Facebook, for example. Facebook’s EULA (End User License Agreement) has increasingly taken the ease and/or option of privacy away from the user. You can opt out for a time, ‘suspending’ your account while all your content remains in limbo. But to truly opt out means all of your content, interactions, etc. are all deleted.
For the average user, this neverending documentary of your life is an acceptable sacrifice. It’s what Facebook is designed to do, after all. But it’s also predicated on the idea that we should be allowed to control the privacy settings on our account, something that appears to be less and less likely to endure. The fact that Facebook records my every move on its site (and Google, and Amazon, etc.) will eventually result in the access of and potential dissemination of that information by means legal or illegal.
Is this something we should be willing to accept? Upon deep reflection, I greatly doubt it. But is there a compromise between wholeheartedly embracing the medium in such a way that it changes our very perceptions of public and private, and figuratively wrapping ourselves in a sheet for our entire lives? I’m not sure, but I want to think through it, and especially how this encroaching horizon should affect ministry.
Having seen all that went down at the Elephant Room last month, and all the ensuing discussion, some of the varied conclusions could be: 1) TD Jakes is still a heretic, and Mark Driscoll and James McDonald are heretics, 2) TD Jakes is still a heretic, and Mark Driscoll and James McDonald need to be careful, 3) Jakes is fuzzy and hard to nail down, and Driscoll/McDonald are at least unhelpful, or 4) Jakes is orthodox, and Driscoll/McDonald are heroes for having helped prove that evangelicalism is a centered set rather than bounded set. This is the standard way of talking about the event.
The purpose of the blog isn’t to discern which of the above actually took place, but rather to speak towards audience expectations behind events like the Elephant Room, and to a lesser degree the Gospel Coalition National Conference and the upcoming Together for the Gospel Conference. In short, private worlds are being invaded, and we’re opening the gates to others and demanding that others open their gates wider. Two observations along these lines:
1) The transaction of information has increased exponentially. The flood of technology in our lives means that we can observe vast amounts of information is short amounts of time and we are, in fact, creating this state of affairs by our own hands. The culture, attuned to the new means of procuring information through new technology, invites more and more information. The purveyors of information (for our purposes men like McDonald and Driscoll, etc.) appropriate the new technology to get their message out.
This is, of course, the normal state of affairs and there’s nothing in principle wrong with this. What intrigues me is less so that these men use available means to get their message out, but instead that the audience demands increasing amounts of information to consume. Another BCS student and I were discussing how amazing it is that John Piper’s entire life is practically recorded by Desiring God. Whether there’s a documentary that’s filmed in his home, or every sermon or he preaches, no matter the venue, it seems to be recorded. This is, again, not wrong. But it shapes the desires and demands of the audience that follows him.
There’s a deeper assumption, and the more concerning one:
2) The type of information being exchanged is increasingly private. Consider Hollywood: internationally known figures are followed and their private lives photographed for all to see. The wider culture pines over comments about private lives. We need to know about Beyonce’s and Jay-Z’s baby, for instance.
But consider the phenomenon of evangelical celebrity: not only are their lives tracked, but their personal thoughts are queried at a much deeper level by the wider world. We want to know all about the inner workings or ministry, family, life, etc.
And the kicker is: they put it out there. The Elephant Room is a bigger example of this than the other conferences, but there’s still an application: the increasing exchange of information means naturally that more and more private information must be exchanged as public information is exhausted. The audience is both demanding such information and being shaped by the release of such information.
Just think about the gossip machine that is Christian blogging. Or perhaps, better stated, commentators on said blogs. For instance, there were demands to know what was taking place behind the scenes leading up to the Elephant Room. The fact that more calls for discernment and information came after the Elephant Room certainly says something about the event, but doesn’t it say something about our being accustomed to desire and demand such information? The evangelical world mirrors the culture: many want private knowledge about the ins and outs of public figures and public events to be fully known.
In of itself, this could be a fine thing within reason. But the corollary is the most shocking thing: in being enamored with the private information of public figures, are we in fact ignoring what is most important: our own lives and the lives of those we influence?
So, for public figures… I wonder if their lives so open and so directed towards the larger world that they cannot be helpful for those who know them personally. That’s just me thinking out loud. But for those of us who are observing… are our lives so geared towards information consumption in the wider world that we fail at knowing family, friends, and strangers? Loving and respecting our spouses? Our families? Our friends? Our churches? Our communities?
I feel like I’m looking back on a season of my life, especially when I was single and still in college, where I was overly consumed with things outside my immediate sphere of influence. Life moves on, and these things are less keenly felt now. But there’s another point I want to talk about tomorrow, one that strikes even closer to home for me.
Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer orthodox? Specifically, did he believe in the literal birth, death, and resurrection of Christ? Was he evangelical: did he believe that Christ was the good news of salvation for all who believe by faith? I read selections from Bonhoeffer in college that, on the face of it, appeared to show a German liberal with neo-orthodox leanings. But reading The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics seemed to show another side. He didn’t buy into liberal theology. He defended the Bible against those who would assault it.
Then, in 2009, I read portions of Letters from Prison. My tentative conclusion: what Bonhoeffer wrote later in life was substantially different from what he wrote as a younger man. Perhaps the prison and concentration camps threatened his faith in God, or maybe even shipwrecked it?
So without pouring over a bunch of Bonhoeffer’s writings, what’s your take? Those of you that have read more than I have from Bonhoeffer: is the above formulation potentially valid? How would you explain the debate that’s arisen since Eric Metaxas’ biography was published?