by Phil Johnson
ome random but loosely-connected thoughts about the Fad-Driven Church® have been accumulating in my subconscious while I've been reposting those old entries about evangelical fads. So I've decided to interrupt the process of reposting old entries and take a load off my mind today:
- Warning. Irony ahead. Tim Keel is irritated that a "Christian" band ripped off a secular band's album-cover concept. But isn't that a perfect metaphor for the contemporary Christian Music industry itself? Ditto for every quasi-evangelical fad, including Emergent religion and all the other expressions of Christianized postmodernity promoted so enthusiastically at Tim Keel's blog. Keel promises that when the CD cover for his community's music comes out, it's going to be different. Not just so-quirky-you-might-not-get-it different. Oh, it will be that, of course, but much more: "When this deal comes out, it will be art," he grandly announces. "It has a voice."
- Speaking of art. . . Has anyone else noticed that Emergents seem especially prone to confuse art and cliché? That's what I was pondering at the very moment when Tim Keel's page led me to gary aronhalt. (gary had actually commented about the album-cover ripoff before Tim did.) Meanwhile, gary, like countless others in the Emergent generation, likes to type as much as he can in lower-case letters. Very e. e. cummingsish. You knowartistic in that cheesy, schoolgirlish, trite-and-unimaginative way post-evangelicals seem to prefer making their expressions of cultural awareness. And we don't need to single out gary aronhalt. Lots of Emerging types have written lower-case-only entries in the Pyro-comment threads over the years. And they usually excoriate us for our lack of theological originality.
To be clear: I don't really care whether anyone uses his or her shift key. I'm actually amused by the faux-humility of always lowercasing one's own name so as not to draw undue attention to it. But the popularity of the practice is yet another fitting symbol for just about everything that is currently fashionable on the evangelical fringe. Why is it that those who seem to talk most about originality are always so lemminglike?
- Take Erwin Raphael McManus, for instance. (Is there anyone more pretentious in all the world of postmodern religion?) Surely no one talks more about "innovation" than McManus. Yet no one seems to work harder than he does to keep in step with the spirit of the age. He more or less epitomizes the unimaginative, second-hand style of three decades of evangelical faddism, always limping far enough behind the world's fads to be just a little bit embarrassing. (Even McManus's writing style is "bland and derivative," to quote a famous blogging friend.) It's all quite the opposite of "innovative."
But McManus's "me too" mentality is (by definition) disturbingly contagious. Someone wrote me last week asking what would be wrong with adopting McManus's methodology as long as we're careful to overlay it with a high view of Scripture.
It's pretty hard for me to see why anyone with a high view of Scripture would want to adopt a methodology whose whole raison d'être is rooted in a low view of the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. It's a methodology that systematically subordinates Scripture to a secondary or tertiary role in the life of the church. Sez McManus: "Well, I build my life not on the Word of God, but the voice of God." He believes his role is not to teach the content of Scripture to his people. That's a "modern" idea. Rather, McManus's goal is to share his own life "through the Scriptures." I'm not sure how one would do that without deliberately reading into Scripture things that are not there. But I'd much prefer to be taught the truth of Scripture instead of having Scripture used as illustrative material (or whatever) for McManus to give me insights into his life (especially given the hyperbolic terms he always uses to describe himself). It seems to me that a pastor's life ought to be an instrument for teaching the truth of Scripture, not vice versa.
- I confess I do not understand the near-reverential respect McManus's admirers lavish on him. Sure, if you read his own PR about himself, you might think he is the most wonderfully creative and forward-thinking guy ever to grace a platform. But I can't think of a single idea he has proposed that is not somehow adapted from the standard seeker-sensitive repertoire, cherry-picked from Emerging postmodernism, or purloined from some neo-gnostic playbook. Can you?
I've always thought it mildly funny (and seriously bombastic) that McManus likes to label himself a "futurist" instead of a pastor. Yet despite his use of that title, he seems to have little or nothing to say about the future from a biblical and eschatalogical perspective. Instead, his main areas of interest are conspicuously earthbound and worldlycontra Colossians 3:2.
For example, it's not easy to find any emphasis on holiness in his teaching. In a YouTube video featuring McManus talking about "purity," the rationale he gives for staying morally chaste is entirely man-centered. It's all about "relationships," and specifically human relationships, with no reference to the holiness and righteousness of God himself.
McManus even makes the hackneyed claim that "to God, the central principle of the universe is relationship. . . There's nothing of greater value to God than the way we treat each other." He gives zero biblical authority for that claim, of coursebecause there is nonebut he delivers the line as if it were the key to gnostic enlightenment. He clearly believes it's an idea more important than any old-fashioned notions about holiness. McManus makes one scant and completely oblique reference to Scripture in the whole video. (He says, "You are the temple of God," but he seems to apply that idea to believers and unbelievers alike; he doesn't actually say he is referring to any Scripture; and he purées the statement together with his own unbiblical remarks: "There's nothing more core, more central" than sexuality "because you are the temple of God.")
In the current version of his website bio, McManus has dropped the title "futurist" in favor of a longer list of occupations ("author, speaker, activist, filmmaker and innovator"). There's nothing in the bio that identifies him as a Christian, much less a pastor. McManus's whole website actually reads like a parody of the kind of pretentiousness that has become his trademark. You have to follow all the links on his main page to learn everything about Erwin: "the author; the speaker; the artist; the leader."
I've never had much to say about McManus, mainly because most of what disturbs me in his teaching are ideas I have already critiqued when I have dealt with postmodernism and the Emergent Conversation. Even though McManus bristles when such labels are applied to him, he has dabbled in and around the edges of the Emerging-church sideshow almost since its inception.
Still, my fundamental quarrel with McManus is not about whether he repudiates this or that label. It's not even about the menagerie of high-flown titles he does load his resumé with. It's this: clear gospel truth is almost impossible to find in the material he publishes and posts for public consumption. And in that regard, I don't see a whole lot of difference between Erwin McManus and Joel Osteen. He's Osteen with blue jeans and an occasional soul patch rather than a shiny suit and a perpetual grin.
Am I being too hard on McManus? I expect we'll get lots of commenters (including the usual suspects and some first-time drive-bys) who will insist that I am. McManus seems to have lots of passionate devotees online. To them I say: Welcome to our blog. Convince me. It should be easy to do if I'm wrong. Simply show me a few places where McManus makes the gospel plain and clear for his audience, with straightforward, biblical explanations of sin, atonement, and justification for sinnersincluding a distinct and compelling summons for sinners to repent.
Yes, I realize that is historic, confessional, old-style doctrineand it's not at all the sort of thing a "futurist" likes to talk about.
That's my point.
- Also in the category of Things That Parody Themselves: The Soliton Network. "The Soliton Network is an invitation to the rhythms of hospitality and generosity as well as to share resources, laughter, dreams and friendships. Soliton events are informal opportunities for people to reflect on the edges of Christian spirituality and practiceall are welcome, and many have been surprised by how rich the experience is. Speakers/facilitators at previous Soliton events have included Brian McLaren, Erwin McManus, Greg Russinger, Christine Sine, Doug Pagitt, Si Johnston, Jo Coles, Gareth Higgins, and many more."
- And finally . . . The incredulous words of former presidential candidate John Edwards give us an important lesson that hasn't yet dawned on most American politicos and postmodernists: "Being 99 percent honest is no longer enough."