30 March 2011

Open Letter to The Average Pastor

by Frank Turk

Dear Pastor:

First of all, breathe a sigh of relief because this open letter, while to you, is not really “about you,” except as food for thought. This is not about your spiritual, exegetical, theological or humanitarian malfeasance. But it is about something that I think you probably think about often enough that I hope this can be of some use to you.

Now, about 5 years ago, Sir Ken Robinson delivered 20 minutes at the TED talks. For those of you who have no idea what that means, it was at the TED talks that the touchscreen technology that drives the iPhone and iPad was unveiled, and amongst the technological hoo-ha that goes on there, what is also delivered is a myriad or other ideas which, I think, are rightly labeled as one brand of secular humanism – a pretty gaudy and self-important kind of humanism, but humanism nontheless. This is how they describe themselves:
TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design -- three broad subject areas that are, collectively, shaping our future. And in fact, the event is broader still, showcasing ideas that matter in any discipline. The format is fast paced: 50+ talks over the course of four days (to say nothing of the morning and evening events). This immersive environment allows attendees and speakers from vastly different fields to cross-fertilize and draw inspiration from unlikely places. This is the magic of TED.

Attendance at TED is by invitation only, and the attendees -- CEOs, scientists, designers, intellectuals -- are as extraordinary as the speakers, who in 2007 included former US President Bill Clinton, author Isabel Allende, legendary biologist EO Wilson, designer Phillipe Starck, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson; in 2008, speakers included brain expert Jill Bolte Taylor, physicist Stephen Hawking and undersea explorer Robert Ballard. Indeed, TED's success is based on the extraordinary effect of bringing together 1,000 of the world's most remarkable people. The result? Unexpected connections. Extraordinary insights. Powerful inspiration.
Now, get this: here’s an event where all the people are classed as “extraordinary”, and literally millions of people cannot come (though they can look in, via video) because they are by definition “not extraordinary”. So the average or common person is allowed to look in through the display windows, but they can’t be part of the actual magic (and I don’t use that word accidentally).

So there at TED, in 2006, Ken Robinson delivered this talk:

And you should pay close attention to this bit near the beginning:
Sir Ken Robinson [about 2:00]: I have a big interest in education, and I think we all do. We have a huge vested interest in it partly because it’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue, despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the last four days, what the world will look like in 5 years time. And yet: we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability I think is extraordinary.

And the third part of this is that we’ve all agreed, nonetheless, on the really extraordinary capacities that children have. Their capacities for innovation. I mean, Serena [Huang, 11-yr-old classical violinist] last night was a marvel. Just seeing what she could do? And she’s exceptional, but I think she’s not exceptional in the whole of childhood. What you have there is a person of extraordinary dedication who found a talent. And my contention is that all kids have these talents and we squander them – pretty ruthlessly.

So I want to talk about education, and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status (applause). [end – about 3:20]
OK – so Sir Ken is not a Christian as far as we can tell, so you’re not going to invite him to your next homeschooling conference. But look at what he’s saying here:
  1. The future is coming.
  2. We have no idea what it looks like.
  3. We are pinning our hopes for the future on education.
  4. This activity is so that we do not squander the talents of our children.
  5. To that end, we should be educating for the sake of growing creativity rather than growing results-oriented adults.
  6. Creativity is at least as important as literacy.
This is awesome, and let me tell you why.

First of all, it’s almost uncalled-for that Sir Ken would confess that we have no idea what the future looks like. I mean: the whole point of atheism is to say that we do know what the future looks like in broad terms, and it will always be better than right now because (if we obey humanist dogma) science will make our lives better. Better medicine, better technology, better quality of life, etc. The future is better. And maybe that’s implicit in Sir Ken’s view of things: we have no idea how good the future will be. But I think there’s something a little more menacing under his statement that we don’t know what the future will hold. The subtext of his statement is that the future will be far more complicated than it is right now, and in that we will need people who are up to the task of manning it. The subtext is simply that if we don’t prepare our kids, they are going to wind up “ruthlessly squandered”. So his confession here is a brutal confession for the kind of humanism TED is advocating: it’s a confession that the future is not necessarily a warm and safe place.

Second of all, Sir Ken’s belief in creativity to overcome the kind of adversity there will be in the future is a dead giveaway that he’s concerned that the future is not all bright lights and long European-style meals with charming and pretty people. You know: if he was advocating that industry will win the day (that is: hard work), he would be advocating for principles which guide us to right ends. So in the future, if we apply ourselves, we can accomplish the tasks at hand because hard work pays off. You can plant a crop if you work hard; you can tend it if you work hard; you can harvest it if you work hard; you can use it to feed yourself and others if you plan and execute that plan with some basic discipline.

But for Sir Ken, it is not a question of principles: it is a question of innovation. That is: old solutions will not work anymore – which speaks to the radical nature of the condition of the future. In some sense, the rules for the future are not even invented yet.

Now, to be fair to Sir Ken, he has other messages in this 20 minutes as well, and I think they are worth considering. But at the core, he has made it utterly plain: the principles which we work with today are, in the best case, for today and likely not applicable to tomorrow. It is imagination and creativity which ought to drive human value systems and our social systems.

So what’s in it for you, then?

Here’s what I think: Sir Ken and the TED network of extraordinary people have a kind of gospel they are proposing which says that humanity can and will save itself. The method of salvation is education. The means of salvation is innovation. Yet they confess that they have no idea what will actually be needed or what will actually be the state toward which we are innovating – we just have to believe that we can and will make the right choices when we are creative enough. Let me say frankly: that’s a path which has been trod down a hundred times historically, and it always ends up in disappointment.

This is where you come in, my dear local pastor.

What you have, instead, is a different Gospel -- which speaks to a future that the TED-ites cannot possibly imagine. The first thing is that it's not for the extraordinary -- its for the everyone.  That may in some sense make it rather mundane rather than a glittering gem which whoever it is that is doing Paris Hilton's job now would want to be seen in public with.  But at least it is not inherently a beauty pageant. It's actually the opposite of a beauty pageant because it is meant for the scum of the earth.

But get this: you know something about people which our friends at TED do not: people are not essentially creative – unless we call the ways in which we invent our gods “creative”. We do what is right in our own eyes. We know that what mankind does, in particular, every day, is that we set up created things as what are extraordinary instead of the maker of all created things. And when we do that, frankly, we cheat ourselves of the truth and live in the dark cover of what we believe rather than what is really out there.

You reformed guys are out there waving the Romans 1 & 2 banners now, I know, but stick with me for a second. While this is a theological way of looking at the matter, it’s not some high-brow thing which you have to be really, really smart to get: this is an extremely pragmatic approach to preparing ourselves for the fall out of the failure of TED-driven utopian thought.

Here is the pragmatism of the Gospel: If Christ really died for our sins, in accordance with Scripture, and was buried and raised on the third day in accordance with Scripture, then the world is not whatever we can imagine it to be. It is in fact something we must somehow know and comply with. So for example, we may all have iPads with wireless 9G connections which are completely free that also has an App Store where we can download anything we want including all manner of religious documents because after Steve Jobs is finally put in deep storage, the next guy will be creative enough to make money on obvious things. But when that happens, what kind of people shall we be? Will that actually make us more creative? Or more loving? Or more compassionate? Or more fit? Or better dancers? Will many children be liberated from the shackles of post-classical education where both literacy and creativity are equal values?

Or will it be with the iPad as it has been with every other device we have invented for ourselves: won't it rather make less of us by making us busy in yet another unreal way?

See: if history actually happened, and Christ's death and resurrection happened in it, in this world, then Sir Ken has really missed the boat. The problem is not that we surpress our creativity: it is that we forget that we are created beings, and that we have a place in this world under the rule of King Jesus. And for his sake, we should repent and ask forgiveness that we think of ourselves as extraordinary when in fact we are only extraordinary in our pride and our self-interest.

This is a world where people congratulate themselves for being creative literally to cover up their pronounced limp.  They somehow both fear and laud the future which holds nothing for them -- except that they might outsmart it (they're not afraid to fail, after all), but Christ is coming to judge them.  And in his judgment, there are no bonus points for making up your own way.  There is only one way, and it's our job to see to it that this is declared without any doubt.

See to it, my friend.  Start as soon as possible, and do not look back.  Unexpected connections, extraordinary insights, and powerful inspiration is all your home court.  See to it.


Thomas Louw said...

Frank Turk goes” Missional”
I Like.

I think you will actually get a response from the guy you wrote to.

Anonymous said...


Frank Turk said...

I woulkd love to here from the average pastor on this one.

DJP said...

Trouble is, we only have extraordinary-pastor readers.

Frank Turk said...

True dat.

cf. Chantry

DJP said...

...and every reader who isn't me.


Robert said...

Thanks, Frank. I think this is a good message for pastors and parents as well. We have all that we need in the Bible and don't need to be more creative.

Hillbilly Geek said...

Though I have the Google Translate app and can translate words and phrases between more than 50 languages it is as if my sound card is broken.
Though I have optical broadband and can download the entire works of Spurgeon in 3.6 seconds and have not love, it profiteth me nothing?
I Jobs 13:1,2

Tom Chantry said...

Hilarious, Frank. That comment only proves how easy it is to put on a good show of being extraordinary while commenting on blogs. When my actual ministry rises to the level of "average" I'll get back to you.

Rachael Starke said...

What's so interesting about that lecture (and so many others at TED) is the inherent assumption that the fruit of all this effort will be universally true, good and beautiful (as all these extraordinary people define those things, of course). All that unleashed education and creativity will produce cures for cancer, limitless clean energy, and superfoods for all. No WMDs, no supercomputer viruses, no Lady GaGas (although I keep hearing about how she's the epitome of creativity, so maybe she's who we want more of? I need the TED people to clear that up for me).

That's where, as you point out, the work of the average pastor is, in the end, about a billion times more essential than a convention center full of TED disciples. Some friends and I have been meeting to go through Charles Bridges commentary on Proverbs, and we continually reinforce to one another that if we fill our children's' heads full of Latin, stoichiometry and history, but have not taught them wisdom by teaching them all of God's Word, we will have utterly failed. And that's why we need, more than anything else, to hear exactly what you've described - the story of an extraordinary God and His dealings with men - Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.

Jim Pemberton said...

I rather liked the third wise man: "Frank sent us."

Frank Turk said...


Aaron Snell said...


Did you happen to catch Phil's opening message at Shepherd's Conference this month? It dovetails rather nicely with your letter/post. So glad he felt well enough to give it!

Brad Williams said...

Does it make me a sub-par pastor if I still wish I could get invited to TEDs?

Here is why it is better, and more awesome, to be a minister of the gospel than a humanist:

If they did invite me to TEDs, oh glorious dream, and if they would only give me 10 minutes to address the attendees, I can promise, by the grace of God, I would say something in that ten minutes that would have them hollering for their Artemis of the Ephesians and more You Tube clicks than a giggling baby.

Frank Turk said...

Phil spoke at the Shepherd's Conference?

I don't believe it. There was no outcry and no gnashing of teeth.

DJP said...


Aaron Snell said...

Staples :)

WoundedEgo said...

Frank, I think you are leaving the impression that you despise TED Talks, Ken Robinson and this particular address by Robinson. Is that so? Or were you only trying to make a point, using these as jumping off points? You said:

"...Here’s what I think: Sir Ken and the TED network of extraordinary people have a kind of gospel they are proposing which says that humanity can and will save itself..."

My impression is that you are either missing or misrepresenting the point and erecting a rather bizarre straw man in order to thrash him.

Robinson's talk is an excellent talk. TED Talks are educational, fun, inspiring, challenging... yet you've seen fit to take a cheap shot at them because they lack TULIP-centricity. Your hyper-critical (hUPOKRITIKOS) evaluation smacks to me evidence of a smallness of mindset, ala the caricature of the Pharisees in scripture.

Frank Turk said...

OK - who is posing as this crack pot 'Wounded Ego'?

this was funny yesterday when he was tormenting DJP, but his is a serious post.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

On so many levels, WOW! I seriously think this is your best open letter yet, Frank. It was great when I read it this morning, and still great now that I'm reading it before bed. I just love looking for how you are going to deliver up the gospel in your letters every week, and each time I am edified and reminded of why we exist. And I'm just an average housewife. But this place is smokin.

trogdor said...

So you're saying that the most visionary and brilliant ideas of the elitiest bunch of elites that ever elited are thoroughly dominated by an unremarkable fig-picker of a pastor who faithfully proclaims God's word. Sounds good.

Tom Chantry said...

an unremarkable fig-picker of a pastor

Oooh, that's good. I might just have to update my profile.

Thomas Louw said...

This post reminds me of a fateful night.

I was fresh out of Seminary. It was my, if I remember correctly third home visitation.

We went to visit a “now and then” attendee to our church that had a lot of influence in the church, go figure.

He was doing one of those “convert your regular degree and get a MTH in theology”.

I was very optimistic especially when he told me he was doing it on the doxology of Paul. I asked “what doxology?”

He immediately flamed grilled me for not automatically know what he was talking about. I was so taken aback by his reaction, which was mostly a personal attack against the senior pastor of that time, I said nothing.

He was a man who loved his “paper pastors’ and dead set that the local guys was not informed enough.
The irony was that my “home pastor” did his PhD of nine hundred pages on the doxologies of Paul, so I did get my fare share of teaching in it.

This was the night when the first small fox was let loose in the field that would be my ministry.
The beginning of the end.

Brad said...

Mr. Turk,

When I hear a guy like Sir Ken, I realize that although he might have different worldview assumptions, perhaps there is a grain of truth in what he says. As I hear him, he is just trying to improve on the way we educate, and not necessarily making declarations on how we are to be "saved." What he says can easily be incorporated into a Christian worldview. After all, God has created us with unique capacities that should serve to honor him by reflecting his creative glory. You have a good point when you bring out the fact that secular humanism is not in accord with true biblical purpose, and this is the corrective we ought to bring. These are just some thoughts but I don't want to drag on too long here. Thanks for your post.

someone said...

This may be slightly off the main point, which may be presenting the gospel, but

I believe we need Christians that have a strong grasp of the gospel that also use their God-given creative skills to their maximum to express our worship for Him; not necessarily the either/or view that I seem to glean from Frank's letter (and obviously, I know that Frank knows this, but I thought I'd throw that in there for the sake of completeness).

Frank Turk said...

I disagree with the last two comment.

With Brad, I disagree that I have made Sir Ken into an all bad-guy as I was somewhat-circumspect to say, "Now, to be fair to Sir Ken, he has other messages in this 20 minutes as well, and I think they are worth considering."

For "Someone", I disagree about the extent of Sir Ken's message. He is the one who puts creativity on-par with literacy as a goal for education, and that is so transparently-utopian I have a hard time finding any way to say it is something else. What's at stake is not whether or not we need some creative people, or whether creativity is compatible with Christianity: what's at stake is whether or not creativity is a stand-alone virtue which makes the future a place we can live in and thrive.