23 September 2016

“How-to” Christianity

"Christus," Peter Eugene Ball, Winchester Cathedral,
Winchester, U.K.
In the early 80s, Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles was one of a few places my parents knew that seemed to take the Bible seriously. And being serious people, we enrolled in IBLP's homeschooling program.

I'm grateful for my parents. They love me, protected me, taught me to think. We made choicesnot to have television, to work instead of playing sports. I don't regret it.

Though my interactions with Gothard were few, I do remember being too much in awe. But besides that, besides the scandal, two other things stand out: our expectation of what our choices meant and how typical those expectations were.
Gothard's statement of belief is broadly Christian with respect to spiritual salvation, but his website said his goal is to “provide Biblical principles and concepts of life to guide people in their choices.”

His biblical interpretation—a method that emphasized personal insight, or “rhema"—allowed him to combine ideas from various fields and biblical texts, creating what he called “a new approach to life.”

It also seems to have worked the other way around. Gothard's conferences emphasized lifestyle commitments, marked by prayer and putting one's hand “up and then down.” And this emphasis created a narrative that defined humanity—and most of reality—in terms of behavior and ethical principles.

Using this interpretive framework, Gothard seems to imagine God relating to us more as a jurist to citizens than as a potter to clay. The pressure is on the individual to do what is right so that relationships...and the kingdom of God...can succeed.

The Bible becomes a source of cautionary tales and formulas for successful living. Grace became “the desire and power God gives to do his will.” Freedom became “not the right to do what we want but the power to do what we ought.” Wisdom became “seeing life from God's perspective." A good life involves following Jesus' example and receiving spiritual power.

This narrative makes it plausible to see biblical promises regarding future generations as conditional results of good parenting. Wayward children then become an indictment of their parents. It also becomes plausible to blame one person's immodesty for another person's lust, even though as far as I know the Bible doesn't equate those two.

This is not to say the Bible never describes God as a judge. It's also not to say that parents do not shape whom their children become. It does point out how reading the Bible for how-tos leads to a particular experience of what Christianity means.  

But Gothard's focus on “success in life” and the culture of celebrity whereby he built an audience reflect broader trends

Gothard mastered the “how-to” formula before clickable content. He reached out with birthday cards and newsletters before Seth Godin coined the term “permission marketing.” He built his audience with exclusive conferences and brought in other Evangelicals—Al Smith, David Barton, Ray Comfort.

In a 2007 “60 minutes ”interview, Joel Osteen told Byron Pitts, “...I'm called to help people…how do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? And these are principles that can help you. I mean, there's a lot better people qualified to say, 'Here's a book that's going to explain the scriptures to you.' I don't think that's my gifting,"

When Pitts asked Osteen whether his optimism might mislead those for whom life's problems don't get better, Osteen said, “...I teach that even in the tough times you have to embrace where you are. Know that God's giving you the strength to overcome. You can even be positive in a negative situation and it will help you stay filled with hope.”

At a Get Motivated seminar in Oklahoma City, 2006, Peter Lowe gave a faith presentation, envisioning God as a source of power for an eternally successful life. It was just before lunch, as I recall, on a day that also featured Rudy Giuliani, Suze Orman, University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops, and stock tips.

And theological commitments don't make as much difference as one might expect. 

Church planters use the language of entrepreneurship to describe themselves. A lot of what we call “missional” today critiques American consumerism but still measures success in lifestyle and behavior. It critiques American individualism by challenging individuals to make a difference. 

And once it becomes plausible to equate platform building with the mission of the church, it becomes less surprising that Time Magazine would mentioned Mark Driscoll as a leader in "new Calvinism" in 2009 and then a marketing scheme to get the Driscolls' book, "Real Marriage," on bestseller lists helped speed the shuttering of Driscoll's Seattle mega church in 2015.

In his book, "Bad Religion: How we became a nation of heretics," Ross Douthat provides historical context, exploring the forces at work in the "Christian convergence" after World War II and in orthodox Christianity's declining influence since. He observes that Americans have not become less religious so much as less orthodox—more inclined to equate righteousness with prosperity, to confuse Christianity with Americanism, to espouse what researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

In his book “Christless Christianity,” Michael Horton critiques Osteen and others. Horton says, “Calling us to accomplish great things for God is part of the hype that constantly burns out millions of professing Christians. Telling us about the great things God has accomplished—and, more than that, actually delivering his achievement to sinners—is the real mission of the church.”

Indeed the irretrievability of lost time, the frequency with which best intentions go astray, and the experience of suffering defy explanation in a moralistic or an entrepreneurial framework. We cannot make wrongs unhappen. 

But Douthat goes beyond pointing out American heresies don't work. He explores the interaction between American Christianity and American culture...and compares both to historic Christianity. 

A friend recently pointed out that I'm not offering solutions, just complaints. He's right. At least in some sense, I might be doing that.

But there's something else too. Call it longing...and a glimpse...of something true in spite of me, not dependent on my performance, more like my parents' love than Gothard's theories, old as Genesis and strange as Revelation, more like a crucifix than a seminar. 

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