21 September 2011

The Open Letter is Postponed One Day

by Frank Turk

 You know what? I ran out of daylight AND moonlight this week, and the video response will be worth it. It may not be the top-10 post I sort of promised, but it's worth the wait -- worth letting me have an extra night to get it in the can. But as a warm-up for that post (to be tomorrow, and DJP's post will roll over into Friday), I have an oldie but a goodie along the same lines. Enjoy.

Anyway, since Phil re-reviewed the "Why We're Not Emergent" book, I thought I'd coat-tail him again and sort of pre-emptively review the other book he raved about in that post. But as I was reading it, I had this problem I had to resolve: I found another book which I thought needed a review in a much more urgent way.

That "more urgent" book is a little tome called Pop Goes the Church (hereafter PGTC) by a fellow named Tim Stevens, and I came across it in my own bookstore. See: we belong to this marketing group which helps us out by publishing very slick advertising materials and mailing them to our customer lists, which is of course a perfect thing -- except that it causes us, from time to time, to bring in books we wouldn't otherwise, um, proffer. The reason is simple: these books get the ad money from publishers, and that money ultimately pays for the catalog.

Yes, I get it: that's ugly. That is also the way it goes when you join a marketing group: you have to somehow get past the 20% junk and somehow capitalize on the 80% better-than-junk to try to get people to come back into the store.

Anyway, I grabbed the copy of PTCG and started reading it so I could review it, and the strangest thing happened to me: I realized that the other book was actually reviewing this particular book for me. If I were a charismatic, I think I would attribute this to the Holy Spirit speaking directly to me through these two books. But of course, I have to maintain the semblance of dignity here, so let's just say that God, in His providence, gave me the fodder for a brilliant blog post today, and you're merely fortunate enough to get to read it.

See: here's the thing. Over the last couple of weeks there has been a little dust-up in the blogosphere as to whether one should recommend that others not read a book one finds offensive. One blogger in particular tried to make his point very transparent by deleting posts at his blog which disagreed with him about his point of view -- which, I think, is not exactly the message he was trying to send, but we all have an idiom which we tend to drop into.

Anyway, rather than make the obvious "don't read this book" post about Tim Stevens' book, let me suggest something else instead: first read David Wells' book The Courage to be Protestant and then read Tim Stevens' book. Because it seems to me that the only way to really "get" either one of these books is to actually put them side by side and, frankly, let the best man win.

Seriously: read them both and compare them.  Or read them both and then give them to your pastor. Just don't freak out when he realizes that one of these books is a cook book, and he likes that one better. It'll be perfectly creepy like that Twilight Zone episode "To Serve man", because that's exactly what one of these books is advocating: to serve man.

There is an awesome update to this post, BTW: Tim Stevens now wants to remove the word "saved" from the Christian vocabulary when we are speaking to lost people.  That is so amazing its making my eyes hurt.  Maybe my eyes hurt from forcing iMovie to place text where I really, really want it.


Jim Crigler said...

As I was driving into the parking lot today, I thought about how today was “Open Letter” day. Guess I should be flexible when it comes to a “letters” series that’s better than Strong Bad.

FX Turk said...

"Better than Strong Bad" is a lofty achievement. I'm a little abashed.

bassicallymike said...

I guess if you never bring up hell when you speak to the "lost", then "saved" does somehow lose it's significance.

Stephen said...

So you're saying Tom Chantry is Strong Mad, coming in behind and cleaning up the mess (sometimes just making it bigger?).

JackW said...

Frank is like a cat toying with us mices to pieces.

donsands said...

"Seriously: read them both and compare them."

I don't have the time right now. I did check out the introduction and the first pages of Stevens book. Looks like a humanistic view of the Gospel. he said: "He [Jesus] ....didn't use God-words."


David Wells is one of those excellent teachers though. Very quotable brother for sure.

Perhaps I'll be able to read these in the future. It is a goo thing to compare. I took the time to go and see Shane Claiborne in concert, or speak, and it shed a lot of light, let me tell you, when I compare him to a Sinclair Ferguson, whom I was able to hear in person.

Robert Warren said...

Pastor Stevens doesn't like saved, primarily it seems, because it sounds passive.

Although he doesn't say it in the blog post about saved, The Christian Post quotes him also having reservations about born again. I guess because when born is used in the salvific sense in the NT, it is a passive verb.

I'll bet Pelagius didn't like those terms, either.

Chris Nelson said...

Open Letter to Fran Turk: You cannot take a day off from open letters, repent now!

lee n. field said...

I've read Wells, when it first came out. Do I have to read Stevens?? Whine, whine.

I should re-read Wells, in my Abundant Free time....

Solameanie said...

Between the fellow who wants to ditch "saved" to all the other stuff in religious headlines these days (including the Southern Baptists thinking of changing their name), I am beginning to think church news is bad for one's blood pressure. After my last reading, I swallowed a whole bottle of hydrochlorthiazide, and it did no good at all.

Okay, I really didn't do that, but you get my point.

Solameanie said...

Just so you'll know I didn't make that bit about the Baptists up, here you are.

greglong said...

Here's what I posted on Frank's original "book smack-down":

As I read these two books, I see that in some ways Wells and Stevens agree—primarily on the deconstruction of the current cultural situation.

For example, Stevens writes:

The first five words of the book unChristian sum it up quite succinctly, “Christianity has an image problem.” The respect in the community that was prevalent for men of the cloth for decades is nothing but a memory. It may be present in reruns of Little House on the Prairie, but it has no foundation in our current reality.

At the same time, people haven’t stopped pursuing the God-shaped void in their lives. They haven’t stopped asking questions or groping for answers. Most of them just don’t go to pastors, priests, and churches for help anymore. Instead, they go to the First Church of the Open Cinema to watch and hear the latest message by Steven Spielberg or Oliver Stone. Rather than call their pastor, they flip on afternoon television and catch America’s favorite spiritualist, Oprah Winfrey, or they develop their theology based on the lyrics of artists such as U2, Coldplay, and Carrie Underwood.

George Barna says, “A growing number of Americans are shifting away from conventional church experiences and gravitating toward alternative expressions of faith.” (p. 58).

Wells agrees:

We are spiritual. We want relationships, but we do not want to be religious. (p. 60)


In America, 78 percent of people say they are spiritual. When solving life’s dilemmas, 56 percent say they are more likely to rely on themselves than on an outside power like the God of the Bible. And 40 percent claim specifically to be spiritual but not religious. The same change has occurred in Britain. A study looking at the decade from 1990 to 2000 found that during this weekly church attendance dropped from 28 percent to 8 percent but those who said they had spiritual experiences rose from 48 percent to 76 percent. There clearly has been a surge in spiritual appetite that is either hostile to religion or, at least, has lost confidence in institutionalized religion.

Religion as we typically understand it is a publicly practiced matter...This new spirituality is about the private search for meaning, a search for connection to something larger than the self. It is in fact a self-constructed spirituality. (p. 179)


In the United States, 80 percent believe that a person should arrive at his or her own beliefs independent of any external authority such as a church. Indeed, 60 percent say that since we all have God within us, churches are unnecessary. (p. 180)


Those who are on a spiritual journey – and that is the most popular metaphor – have no destination in mind. (p. 183)

The difference between the two books, I believe, is primarily in the reconstruction. In other words, given the current cultural situation, how do we “do church”?


greglong said...

I find Wells’ vision of more compelling. Why? Well, it’s not that I’m opposed to using illustrations from culture, as Paul did on Mars Hill in Acts 17.

There are two things primarily.

1) I am concerned with the idea that God “speaks through culture.” Tim writes:

Somehow, our theology has taught us that God speaks only at church. He only talks to us through his written word or through individual (aka pastor or priest) who has been trained. That belief is very confusing to us when we feel God tugging at our heart through the culture.

Yes, we’ve been taught about the power of the Holy Spirit and about how he can prompt you 24/7. But in reality, many of us were never given any context for God speaking to us through a secular song, a blockbuster movie, or a graphic novel. (p. 60-61)


So we can celebrate the art—knowing it came from the skills, intelligence, and creativity of a being fashioned by God himself. We can also celebrate the content of much of the art in the world today—art that reflects a real search and longing for that which is right and true. Like Paul speaking to the Athenians, we can say, “I see you are seeking God. Let me tell you more about this God you seek.” […]

What does make my heart beat fast, however, is to see how God is alive and well in today’s pop culture. You cannot turn on the TV, listen to the radio, watch a movie, or browse the shelves for a bestseller without seeing evidence of God speaking through our culture.

The Bible is clear that all truth is God’s truth, regardless of the source. (p. 86-87)
Tim goes on to cite examples from the band Linkin’ Park and the TV shows Shark, and Desperate Housewives that challenged him personally.

How does God reveal Himself? Clearly He does through the general revelation of Creation (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:18-20) and through the specific or direct revelation of visions and dreams, through audible communication, and through His Son (Jn. 1:1-18; Heb. 1:1-3). Of course, the ultimate means of revelation is through His Word. I do not see any evidence in Scripture that God “speaks through” the culture in the same sense that He does through His Word. And even if this were true in a general sense, it must always be interpreted in light of His Word.

greglong said...

This leads me to the second primary problem with the culture-driven approach: 2) It isn’t Scriptural.

Tim gives five ways each church can choose to respond to the culture, “and the choice [each church] makes determines how much of an impact it will have on its community” (p. 67). The five options are: 1) Condemn it; 2) Separate from it; 3) Embrace it; 4) Ignore it; and 5) Leverage it (p. 68-81). Tim’s choice is to leverage the culture. What does this mean?

You have to help meet those needs first. And so you scratch them where they itch. You identify people’s needs and let them know you have some answers they should consider. You are still teaching the Bible. You are just initially choosing to teach the portions of the Bible that address the in-front-of-the-face needs of the people in your community. And you don’t just teach truths or quote Bible verses, but you come along beside them and show them the love of Jesus.

You see, if you don’t offer something people need, they won’t come. If the people don’t come, you can’t teach them the truth. So an effective church is busy identifying people’s needs and letting the community know you have some help they should consider. If you speak their language, there is a better chance they will come to a service. If they do that, the odds increase significantly that they will hear how much they matter to God, and they just might respond. (p. 120-121)

Here’s the problem: If it were so important for churches to “leverage the culture”, why don’t we see any hint of it whatsoever in the majority of the New Testament? The only clear example that might be relevant is that of Paul in Acts 17. But what about all the other sermons in Acts? What about Paul’s letters? And most telling, what about the Pastoral Epistles? These letters were written by Paul to Timothy to specifically address how Timothy was to lead his church(es), and yet there is absolutely no mention of the idea of “leveraging the culture” to reach people for Christ. But over and over and over again Paul tells Timothy to guard, fight for, teach, explain, preach sound doctrine. The focus is doctrinal, not cultural. “Doctrine” is mentioned 15 times and “preach/teach/teaching” 11 times.

This is where I think Wells’ book is so helpful. He (borrowing from Os Guinness) asks if we will be sola Scriptura or sola cultura? Do we start with Scripture and then look to culture, or do we start with culture (or with the customer) and then look to Scripture?

One way this manifests itself is through preaching. Is it expository, based primarily on preaching through books of the Bible (although perhaps not exclusively), allowing God to dictate what should be communicated? Or is it topical, looking to culture to dictate what should be communicated?

And what are the consequences of the seeker-driven/culture-driven approach? Wells writes:

A methodology for success that circumvents issues of truth is one that will rapidly emancipate itself from biblical Christianity or, to put it differently, will rapidly eviscerate biblical faith.

That, indeed, is what is happening because the marketing model, if followed, empties the truth out of the gospel. First, the needs consumers have are needs they identify for themselves. The needs sinners have are needsGod identifies for us, and the way we see our needs is rather different from the way he sees them. (p. 52)


What is of first importance to the church is not that it learn to mimic the culture but that it learn to think God’s thoughts after him. (p. 98)

donsands said...

Good stuff Greg. Thanks.

" If they do that, the odds increase significantly that they will hear how much they matter to God, and they just might respond."-Stevens

This is such a half-Gospel message, but it is the one I hear over and over again on Christian radio, and in many pulpits. No message of God's anger and wrath against our sin. To be thrown into hell body and soul for all eternity is white-hot wrath from a holy God. We need to understand this, along with understanding that the Cross displays the love of God in His mercy as well.

Rachael Starke said...

I'm sure Jesus will make a special point to thank Tim for the help with the updated terminology.

Rachael Starke said...

And no worries on the delay with the Open Letter; Kathleen Nielson had your back right on time.

Chris Nelson said...

Greg: I'm not sure even Acts 17 is a good example of leveraging. I'm pretty certain that calling a group of philosophers, "ignorant" as Paul did, did not "leverage" him much with that crowd. Methinks that is like calling the folks at Pyro "the tone police".

Robert Warren said...

That TZ episode was one I didn't remember having seen, so I Wiki'd it. Turns out your graphic has none other than Jaws of James Bond fame (Richard Kiel). He probably could make a spookier video than Steven Furtick.

Aaron Snell said...

As I just blogged a moment ago, here’s the question: is “saved” really just a Christian in-house term? Is it just insider lingo that has no real communicative value for non-Christian outsiders? The Apostle Peter seemed to think differently (Acts 2:37-40) [plus a lot of interaction with other passages in the blog post].

Bottom line: "Saved" is explicitly used in Scripture to communicate the gospel message. We abandon it, I think, to our peril. Moreover, the only way this term would be confusing or meaningless to a non-Christian is if they have never actually been presented with a biblical gospel message of sin, repentance and faith in Christ.

Tommy said...

Some men like to highlight their Bibles, others are content with using black markers.

Coram Deo said...

"Foreword by Ed Young" will normally keep books out of my cart without even needing to crack the cover.

Just sayin'.

In Him,