(This is the second half of the abridged version of Chapter 2, “The Slipperiness of Secularization” from Dr. Carl Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P&R Publishing). To read Part 1, click this.)
Secularization, Subtle and Speciously Orthodox
Yet there are other ways that secular values creep in to orthodox churches. This point has been made again and again by David Wells, the retired professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Seminary, starting with No Place for Truth (1993) and finishing with The Courage to be Protestant (1998). In this latter book, in many ways a summary of his thesis as a whole, David points towards the way in which the therapeutic concerns of modern America, the substitution of the language of ‘values’ for morals, and the rise of a me-first individual rights culture has come to dominate not only the secular American landscape but also that of the evangelical church. On his account, both megachurches and Emergent churches represent not so much counter-cultures but different accommodations to the prevailing culture. The former is the church’s equivalent of the big box store with its careful managerial techniques and pragmatic, market-driven, pile ‘em high sell ‘em cheap mentality; while the Emergent churches (representing a reaction to such crass consumerism) have actually imbibed the slippery epistemologies and eclecticism of postmodernism, which is itself arguably connected to consumerism.
David Wells’ indictment is damning: what he argues is that many churches are as secular in their ambitions and methods as any straightforwardly secular organization. The difference, we might perhaps say, is that the latter are just a whole lot more honest about what they are doing. But, while David’s criticisms are primarily focused on megachurches in the church growth/ Willow Creek tradition and on what we might, for want of a better term, call the evangelical left, is there a case to be made for saying that secular values also pervade the churches which at least think of themselves as traditionally Protestant in the way that David favors?
I believe so, and in a number of significant ways. First, take the ‘rights’ culture which is so typical of the wider world in which we live, where litigation and lobby groups seem to proliferate. Certainly, we can all express dismay at the people who are so inept that they do not realize coffee is hot and, to their great surprise, burn themselves when they spill it and then proceed to sue the vendor for not telling them about the temperature of the steaming liquid in their cups. We have all no doubt rolled our eyes at the latest innocuous action of some employer which has been deemed offensive – and therefore oppressive – to whatever the minority of the month is. There is a clear silliness going here; after all, if I took offense and felt oppressed and psychologically damaged every time an American comedian made a joke about British dentistry, I would never have the emotional energy to lift myself out of bed in the morning.
But rights culture is no monopoly of the Left in either politics or the church. The Left may have their rights to a completely secular public space, to abortion, to gay marriage, but the Right too has its litany of rights as well: to carrying firearms, to cheap gas, to minimal taxation. Now, let me be clear: I am not here drawing any moral equivalence between any one of the rights and any other; what I am pointing out is the way in which the language of Left and Right is typically couched in that of individual rights, whatever the specific issues involved might be.
This plays itself out in the church. What is the vow most often breached, even in conservative, confessional churches? It is the vow each member typically takes to submit to the leadership of the church. While the wording varies from church to church, here is that used in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:
Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine of life, to heed its discipline?
The assumptions of this vow are clear: Christianity is a corporate phenomenon; it is bigger then me and my own agenda; and it involves disciplined obedience within the church, obedience to which we are bound by vow.
There are those, of course, who argue that church membership is not mentioned in Scripture and is therefore unbiblical. This is not the place to address this objection; suffice it here to say that church membership is the practical expression of clear principles of mutual commitment to each other and respect for an established leadership which are both stated in the Bible. The real problem, I suspect, with many who argue that church membership is unbiblical is not that their consciences are wounded by the notion, but rather that they want to avoid commitment. They want to treat the church as they treat, say, a supermarket or a cinema: they go along and take what they need without the troublesome issues created by a personal commitment.
That is surely the reason why this is the vow that strikes hardest against both the consumer-as-king mentality and the suspicion of authority and power structures that is typical of both the Left and the Right in the secular sphere. It is also the vow which has been most weakened by that thing which lies at the very heart of the American dream: the automobile.
My point here is that those who are confessional and rock-solid in their doctrinal commitments need to realize that secular values can yet pervade the way they think about church; and the Christians of the political Right can be as guilty of this as anyone – perhaps even more guilty, with its radical individualism as opposed to the typically more communitarian Left.
A nation which has a profound sense of the Frontier, of the need for each person to look after themselves, and not to rely on others, has many strengths, and these things are surely part of the reason for America’s tremendous success in the twentieth century. Further, the very structure of America government which, by and large, seems chaotic to the outsider through all of its checks and balances, embodies a deep distrust of power and hierarchy at its very core; hardly surprising, given the fact that its basic shape was hammered out in the heat of a rebellion against a British monarch. But the downside of this is that Americans can be very suspicious of anyone in authority, and that spills over in to the church; and, when it does so, it represents not biblical teaching but the incursion of secular individualism. There is an obvious irony to criticizing a Joel Osteen for presenting a secular message in the language of Christianity, or the Left for selling out on moral issues and doing so in the name of Christ, when church discipline in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has all but collapsed in the face of ‘I’ll just treat church as another aspect of the consumer culture’ mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn’t scratched, or I am asked for some practical demonstration of commitment, I just jump into my automobile and rive to the next church where I can better preserve my anonymity.
The Patriot’s Bible and Beyond
Another area where a secular mentality impacts the church is the identification of the nation of America with God’s special people. Again, I need to be clear what I am not saying here: I am not saying that those Christians who want a place in the public square for the Christian voice are guilty of a secular mindset; many of such simply want their faith to shape the way they think politically, and that is a perfectly legitimate notion. Nor am I concerned with those Christians who are also strongly patriotic; patriotism, love for one’s homeland, is a generally a good thing as long as it does not morph into an uncritical nationalism or racism. What concerns me is the so-called extreme wing of the ‘Christian America’ type movements, where the boundary between church, state, and sometimes even biblical history, becomes rather dangerously blurred. An extreme example is provided by the editors of the Patriot’s Bible, an edition of God’s word which is sold on the basis of its connection to the founding of the USA. Even if we set aside the problem of connecting the American Revolution to Paul’s teaching on civil obedience in Rom. 13, the promotional video for the Bible is stunning. A series of images and captions make the point: Adam and Eve, and George and Martha Washington – first families; Moses and Lincoln – freedom fighters; Jesus and the disciples, and the Continental Congress – Founding Fathers. In case anyone has missed the point, the video ends with the statement, `Sometimes history does repeat itself.’ Really? Well, no, in this case it actually doesn’t repeat itself. Biblical, salvation history is not repeated or recapitulated in the history of the United States or any other nation, for that matter. To claim such is puerile, blasphemous nonsense, as bad, if not worse, as anything Osteen might say in a sermon; and it represents nothing other than the secularization of the gospel message to an idolatrous degree.
Yet even the Patriot’s Bible pales in comparison to a painting entitled ‘One Nation Under God,’ which portrays holding the US Constitution, surrounded by figures from American history, including the noted Deists Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Now, I am a personal admirer of a number of aspects of Jefferson and Paine, but orthodox Christians they emphatically were not, and to include them pictorially in some nostalgic plea for a Christian nation is historically ignorant, blasphemous and, quite frankly, risible. It would be fascinating to know what the artist’s view of the faith is: presumably some form of Unitarianism? Patriotism is a civic virtue, and certainly not in itself sinful; but make no mistake – notions of patriotism, so dear to the American Right, can also stand alongside the most secular and heretical visions of Christianity, and can even co-opt such as part of their agenda.
The Celebrity Syndrome
One final aspect of the secular nature of much conservative Christianity is its increasing preoccupation with superstars. This is important, because so often we identify the secular mindset with content – prosperity doctrine, social gospel, straight-down-the-line anti-supernatural liberalism; sometimes, however, the secular mindset is evident not so much in content but in form, a more slippery and surreptitious thing; and it is in this category that I would place the superstar phenomenon. Confessional superstars might be thoroughly orthodox; they may even not like being superstars; but the people and churches who treat them as such betray the creeping secularism in their own mindsets.
Paul is very clear in his letters to the Corinthians. Corninth was a culture where orators, public speakers, were the rock stars of their day. They prided themselves on their ability to declaim eloquently on any given topic, they attracted disciples and fans, and they carried weight within the wider culture. The problem Paul highlights in the Corinthian church, particularly in his first letter, is that members of the church were using the standards of the secular world in order to judge the quality of their own church leaders. The result was a set of factions, or perhaps even better, fan clubs, within the church, focused on different great preachers; and Paul, being, according to his own account, not a physically or rhetorically impressive man, was being dismissed as a second-rater. We can perhaps summarize the Corinthian problem by saying that the church had developed an essentially secular mentality: the criteria of the non-Christian world that surrounded them had come to control how they thought about the ministry and its representatives.
Cults of personality are very bad things; the role of the preacher is to point to Christ and, in that context, to be as invisible as possible. The preacher who brings attention to himself would seem to be, by Paul’s standards, a failure; more than that, a congregation which focuses on the preacher has failed to understand the power and logic of the cross and has capitulated to a secular mindset. Yet the conservative church in America is, arguably, driven to a large extent by such cults of personality.
There are a number of pieces of evidence which point towards this. First, there is the number of parachurch ministries that have sprung up which are focused on the big personality, and frequently named after said personality. Ironically, the movement popularly known as the Young, Restless and Reformed is in the vanguard of such celebrity dominated ministry. Then there is the proliferation of big conferences with big name speakers, again a staple of the YRR. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such; but it is clear from even a casual glance at the internet or even conversation after church that these things have fostered a church equivalent of stardom where it is not the gospel or even the church that provides the focal point, but Speaker X or Speaker Y. It has also fed in to a church culture where a few high-profile celebrity pastors and scholars seem to believe that no issue has been properly addressed until they have definitively spoken to it. Such power plays are profoundly secular.
It is very clear that the Lord has blessed the church of today with some remarkably talented individuals who have been used to do remarkable things. One thinks of Tim Keller in New York or John Piper in Minneapolis. The danger is that, in focusing on such men, we create unrealistic expectations and distorted notions of what normative ministry should be: the evidence that the church models developed by these men can be transplanted with success elsewhere is highly equivocal; more likely, their success is rooted in God using their own remarkable gifts and contexts – the right men in the right place at the right time for something great, if you like. For most pastors, life is likely to be far more ordinary, church far smaller and poorer and the fruits of ministry far less spectacular.
More importantly, we must recognize the preoccupation with such personalities for what it is: a distraction from the very thing for which these men have themselves worked so hard – a single-minded focus on Jesus Christ. So from whence does the problem come? It comes from imbibing the obsessions of the wider culture with big personalities. The world has Access Hollywood, the church has – well, you insert the name. But the name has to be of someone who is able to build a big church, gain a big name, and offer a sanctified equivalent of the movie star magic. This is secularization of the church just as surely as the Patriot’s Bible or the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch.
Secularization is slippery; it hits us where we least expect it; and there is naught here for the comfort of conservative evangelicals. Arguably, those who call themselves confessional evangelicals and yet who build their ministries around cults of personality and slick conferences are in real danger of merely aping the values of secular culture. What is needed is continual reformation which takes us back to the standards of God’s word again and again, drives us to repentance, and leads us to put our trust once again in Jesus Christ rather than any set of political policies, or patriotism, or just a nebulous sense that we are better than the rest.