Worthwhile reading from a guy I don’t know

Sometimes I get frustrated (mostly with myself) when I read that someone else has already written something I really wanted to write but haven’t taken the time to write. Other times I read something like that and am just glad someone wrote it. Michael Spencer’s take on visiting a Christian-themed product retail supercenter is one of the latter. A sampling:

One cannot say it enough: The book selection in the average Lifeway is horrendous…. There is a large section called "Christian Living," and 98% of the books found there never needed to be written. The packaging is very nice. The titles are cute. But after that, things get desperately discouraging. Politics. Family Values. Sentimental devotionalism. Nonsense. Bad advice. Mumbling. …books that retread the same messages that evangelicals have been writing for a century.

and this…

Of course, there are many Bibles and Bible reference materials in most Lifeways, but almost no theology. Bibles and Christian Living, but a shrinking interest in theology. You can draw your own conclusions. I think it tells a story.

and this…

If our pastors aren’t teaching their people, who gave the Christian publishers and parachurch ministries the green light to fill the gap? Thousands of Baptist churches have "Women’s Bible Studies" going that would never be in existence if the pastor were the leader. What’s up with that? I am all for good curriculum, but I don’t want N.T. Wright, John Piper or anyone else replacing the teaching ministry of local church pastors and elders, especially at the instigation of Christian publishers who want to sell products. The issue of accountability is seriously compromised with the proliferation of replacement Bible teachers packaged and sold by Lifeway.

He then goes on to crack back on Joyce Meyer and some of her most ardent detractors by calling her "the pastor most Southern Baptists wish they had, even though their version of God won’t allow her in the ministry."

Read it.

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6 thoughts on “Worthwhile reading from a guy I don’t know

  1. 1) dude sounds mad.
    2) the guy that runs that store will probably admit that he’s in it to make money. They all admit that at the ‘christian’ record labels and publishing companies in Nashville.
    3) I don’t get the crack about women’s Bible studies. Help me, thad.
    4) I think he meant “excepted” not “accepted”. There’s no problem with this mistake, unless you’re positioning yourself as a to-be-respected writer…
    5) I agree that we’ve let teaching go to the professionals, which is too bad.
    6) I hate that pastors are always expected to be teachers in the present religious system. Many of them are not.
    7) I could’ve predicted, based on his venom alone, that this guy was into theology.
    And these, these are my reactions.

  2. Your reactions are welcome here. Not numbered, and not necessarily in order (though organized by disjointed paragraphs as much as possible)…
    I don’t find his tone terribly angry, though frankly I think there is justification for a certain amount and kind of anger in some of what he addresses. There is a commodifying and objectifying of the Gospel and Its Perpetrator that, in my likely flawed opinion, deserves to be jabbed a bit. The jabbing isn’t to be our goal or settling place, but in this case I’m reluctant to conclude that about a guy based on what I know of him from one internet writing. I don’t experience him as venomous, but this evaluation of another’s anger level based on a limited reading of his words is certainly a subjective and unscientific endeavor.
    I also don’t think the point of his argument was that all pastors should be exclusively or primarily teachers. My limited reading of his particular story revealed that he found another line of work because he discovered that he was adept at teaching but not other essential elements of pastoring (a journey of self-actualization that far too few employed pastors are willing to take). I think his argument is more in the realm of #6 of your theses – that the local community of believers too often defers to important christians ordained either by fame or academia to set our corporate religious agendas and to define and nuance our interaction with God. This is not merely a matter of pastoral responsibility to teach, but to shepherd a people into owning spiritual experience in the context of a dynamic, participating community. Then again, maybe I’m bringing too much of my own perspective to the piece.
    As for the bit about women’s Bible studies, I can’t say for sure what he means; only what I think he means. I think he means that many pastors have largely surrendered the shepherding of the women in their churches to Beth Moore. In other words, if Beth (or whoever replaces her in the cycle once she moves on or people tire of her) wasn’t doing what she’s doing, most male pastors wouldn’t have the first clue how to responsibly and effectively participate in the spiritual formation of women. And if that’s not what he means, it should be.
    I still believe the subculture/marketplace spends millions of dollars to cloak itself as a generous big brother whose primary interest is our spiritual well-being. The more-than-implicit message in that is that we can trust them to feed us what we need. You and I may know better, but my experience is that many could still use a little bubble-bursting in this area. We all know they operate for-profit, and yet a disconnect remains for many between that reality and the trustworthiness of what is being peddled (check the best-seller wall at your local incarnation of the machine). I have no problem admitting that makes me angry, not merely at the people operating the machine, but for them (and certainly for those taken in by this routine). They are often purveyors-unaware of a culture of religious imitation and pop-psych gimmickry that distracts consumers from a life that is really Life.
    The issue of theology may be a matter of genuine disagreement or it may be a matter of semantics. I tend to think you and I would mostly agree about the merits of theology as a purely mental pursuit, and I tired of that years ago. I’m pretty sure that’s not what this guy means when he laments a lack of theology books in this particular context. My reading (again subjective) of what he says is this – the religious spirit of the day tells people, “What you need is the Bible (often a surrogate for God, which is another conversation but part of the ‘story’ to which I believe Spencer refers) and some smart and practical people to tell you how to live like the Bible in all its neat and well-defined details says to live.” …hence the observation about the shelves being stocked with Bibles and books on “Christian Living.” In a certain context (namely that one), I am sympathetic with a desire for more theological conversation to the end that it encourages us to think beyond the trite and systematic (and, I know we agree, enslaving) approach to “biblical thinking and Christian living.”
    It’s easy to decry theology as a distracting and self-indulgent pursuit (and right to do so under a certain set of definitions), but that idea we disown may not be what theology really is. As we attempt to distance ourselves from theology, that’s often not what we’re doing at all. We’re simply distancing ourselves from a particular practice and vocabulary. We’re still “doing” theology (whether we’re reading, writing, praying, eating, crying, talking, sitting in a hot-tub or any other aspect of living); we’re just calling it something else. How we perceive, receive, and live with God is theology, and conversation and exploration of that is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, so long as we go that road with eyes set on the proper Goal. I don’t think he’s arguing for shelves full of systematic theology texts. I think he’s noting that the marketplace is setting the agenda for the church, and that agenda is decidedly less interested in people genuinely thinking about, pursuing, and experimenting in the nature and presence of God and more interested in system, control, order, and predictability (that can be neatly packaged, sold, and applied in under five minutes a day).
    Finally, if we all knew what sorts of mistakes “to-be-respected” (and actual respected) writers made on their own (absent the intervening rescue of editors), we’d think of most of them as hacks (which I say as an openly rabid self-editor who doesn’t naturally come by much grace for these things myself). Why even I, blinded by the swirl of my own verbal infallibility, recently wrote publicly about my own feets (where I, we can only hope, really meant feats). Shameful, yes, but I must own it.

  3. Delayed Responder –
    You may have something to add to the discussion here, and you might benefit from the exchange yourself. Your questions are welcome, just not your anonymity. You seem to have strong opinions about the perspectives of some of the regulars (and me), which is fine. Just stand behind what you have to say. I understand the appeal of remaining an anonymous critic, but it makes criticism (especially in a particular tone) much tougher to credit in a venue where everyone else is known. Feel free to email or post again as yourself, and I’ll be glad to restore your comment.
    thad

  4. My name is Frank, from MO. As a general rule I don’t post my email address in forums, etc, as I already receive plenty of spam. I apologize for the content and tone of my post – please don’t restore it.
    I also have a big confession to make – I actually typed that up before reading the article that was the actual point of discussion. So, that makes the post doubly tenuous.
    As far as a response to the main point of discussion here, it is funny that as I read the article the main thing that hit me was – I was in a Mardel back when the Jabez craze was at its peak and I remember being mystified by the assortment of Jabez paraphernalia that was being sold. And, I had a lot of thoughts that are in line with the article.
    I do support for-profit companies marketing / distributing Christian materials, but that is mostly because I don’t know of any non-profits that are options – hehe.

  5. Thanks, Frank, for your honesty, humility, and input. I don’t think the spam-bots are poking around a site with no more traffic than this one, but I certainly understand your concern. I know anonymity is sometimes desirable, especially on the internet, and I welcome new posters. It’s just that I know most everyone who posts, so the appearance of a drive-by is a little weird for us. Anyway, you sound like a nice guy with something to say. Feel free to stick around, and thanks for the follow-up.

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