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I will keep sneering and here’s why.
A curt response to Richard Beck’s somewhat defense of prosperity preachers.
I was recently introduced to Richard Beck’s newsletter via his post, “Stop Sneering and Get to Work,” and I have some thoughts. Perhaps this “stream of consciousness” type of reaction isn’t the best idea, but it’s late and my fingers are working and I feel like writing. There’s a part of me, small though it may be, that agrees with Beck’s fundamental assertion — which is, basically, that the fundamentalists should be a little nicer when evaluating praise music and prosperity gospelers. I get that. Those “fightin’ fundies” sure do have a way of beating dead horses, I suppose. But, in this case, the metaphor’s more than merely analogous.
I’ll refrain from commenting on his interaction with Jordan Peterson, because my knowledge of that guy is limited to his appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcast. But, I’ll admit that I, too, am tired of seeing those hit pieces on Christian publications about why I should never under any circumstances let my congregation sing Hillsong ever again. I know exactly where those sort of posts are coming from and where they’re going. I’ve read them, even the ones from guys I’m fond of in the evangelical blogosphere. But, sue me, I’ll still be blasting “So Will I” in my car years from now. And I might even introduce it to my church, too. But I don’t think that that is so because Hillsong touches a heretofore unknown psychological nerve, as Beck proposes. Rather, I’d suggest that these songs hit on an all-but-forgotten theological proclivity with which we were all created (Eccl. 3:11).
The depth of meaning in Hillsong’s lyrics offers a wide range denominational affiliation, with some lines skirting the edge of orthodoxy and others that’d make Isaac Watts jealous. But the point is, there is theology, rich amounts of it, in several Hillsong songs, including, “King of Kings,” “O Praise the Name,” “From Whom All Blessings Flow,” to name a few. Of course, that’s not always the case with every record they release. But have you opened a Baptist hymnal lately? If you really wanna talk about the finer points of theological “i”-dotting, there’s some hymns in there that I shudder to see still in print. The hullabaloo that often follows the conversation surrounding modern praise music is more than a little tiresome. If there’s sound theology woven in the words, who are we to proclaim everything “new” as heterodox? That just gets old after a while. So, from a certain point of view, I can understand a sliver of Beck’s point. But I can’t understand where he lands the plane.
You see, the bulk of his post concerns his thoughts on the unfair broadsides weathered by prominent televangelist Pastor Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Osteen’s smiley veneer, which fills daytime television talk-shows and bookstore shelves, is not only suggestive of a panache that’s always on point, but also of a theology that’s less than biblical. And I know that by saying those sort of things means I’m playing into the exact sort of language that Beck tries to counter in his post, but I can’t help myself. Sometimes a spade’s a spade. But before I get too far, let me share Beck’s story, through which he attempts assuage the doctrinal vitriol often hurled Osteen’s way. Beck recounts:
Last October I was teaching my class at Fuller Theological Seminary for their DMin program. As a part of that class we visit Homeboy Industries . . . The tours at Homeboy are given by the homeboys. In years past, our tour guides have been younger men, in their twenties. But our tour in October was led by a man in his 50s who had multiple felony convictions and had been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. He started the tour asking where we were from and about our interest in Homeboy. We told him we were in a seminary class at Fuller and that most everyone in the group was a pastor for a church. Hearing that, our guide said, “I’m not very religious. But you know who my guy is? Joel Osteen. He’s my guy.” And then he went on to tell us how impactful Joel Osteen has been in rehabilitating his life after prison. You can imagine our surprise — teacher and students in a seminary DMin class, a group who had been sneering at Osteen for years, a sneer literally trained into us by our seminaries — standing there, for quite some time, getting a heartfelt testimonial about the impact Joel Osteen has had on this ex-felon’s life.
When we returned to our classroom back on campus, I asked the class: “So what did you learn about Joel Osteen?” To a person, we all wished we had churches that could speak to our tour guide. But we also had to confess that our guide would never come to our churches, never listen to our sermons. And yet, he was listening to Joel Osteen.
So, let me say this plainly for any of us who have sneered at Joel Osteen: Joel Osteen could speak to this gang-member and criminal, could change his life. Could you or I? And if we can’t, maybe we should wipe the sneers off our faces and work at becoming better missionaries.
It’s a compelling anecdote, not gonna lie. It has an air of convicting truth, à la stop worrying about the splinter when you still got your log (Matt. 7:3–5). But the problem, at least for me, is Beck’s larger assertion that the “deep ache in the modern world” can be healed with some of Osteen’s fluff. His cheerleading and “‘parenting’ [of] people who never had any parenting, or at least not any good parenting” is, for Beck, a trenchant message that’s made for our time. Accordingly, there’s room in the ecclesial landscape for Osteen and his ilk because there’s people who can resonate with his message. Because he can touch a certain demographic with his flavor of “You can do this! You got this! I believe in you!” rah-rah spiritualism, those who’d rather sneer at him should stop their sneering “and get to work.” That’s what Beck says, at least. But just because it’s changing lives doesn’t mean it’s saving souls. Just because it’s resonant doesn’t mean it’s redemptive. There’s a lot of preaching out there that reaches a lot of people, bringing about positive life-change. And that’s all well and good. I don’t mean to diminish that. But I do mean to assert that, irregardless the effect, without the pronouncement of sin and forgiveness, there’s not much “preaching” going on.
If I’m coming across a little more lively than usual, that’s because I am. These sort of assertions touch a pastoral nerve for me, right in the homiletical funny-bone, you could say. Only it’s not funny. Not at all, actually, because souls are at stake. Those who attend church don’t need to be entertained or cheered-on. They need to be absolved. They don’t need their lives bettered so much as they need their souls atoned. Consequently, there is only one message that has ever boasted of being able to do such things. And it’s not one that the apostles brainstormed. It’s one they were given. Indeed, there’s only one piece of news, one announcement that has ever truly offered to save men’s souls and turned the whole world upside-down in the process. And it’s the announcement which begins with a preacher staring you down and calling you out for putting the King of kings on a Roman spigot.
Take a gander at the series of sermons which, for all intents and purposes, brought about the formation of the Church of Christ. In Acts chapters 2, 3, and 4, we are privy to three public discourses from the apostle Peter, one following the events of Pentecost (Acts 2:14–36) and two following the miraculous healing of a crippled man (Acts 3:12–26; 4:8–12). Inherent in each sermon, however, was a fundamental recognition of guilt. To each Jewish audience came the heart-wrenching news that the One for whom they had waited for all those endless centuries was the One they themselves had killed. “Ye men of Israel,” he declares, “hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:22–23; cf. 2:36; 3:13–15; 4:10–12).
Can you imagine words more startling or scandalizing? St. Peter’s message was one that cut the crowds to the quick. The blood of Israel’s Messiah was on their hands, so to speak. He wasn’t cheering them on so much as he was slicing-and-dicing their perceived sanctimony until each onlooker stood starkly spiritually naked. Then, and only then, would the words of grace be delivered. Every time Peter brought the heat, he was quick to sling a curveball of unforeseen absolution. “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 4:11–12). The asostles’ sermons weren’t about making their hearers feel better about themselves. Rather, they concentrated on proving, beyond refute, from God’s Scriptures, that the Savior had come and that all the world was desperate for him.
The message that’s needed in our day is the same. We need to see ourselves as the murderers who put our Lord and Savior on the cross. And while that might not be popular rhetoric, that’s the gospel. And only the gospel can mend the “deep ache in the modern world.” That’s the decided fact of Scripture. God’s gospel is God’s answer to a world gone terribly wrong by man’s rebellion. “The Gospel,” writes Carl Trueman, “is a public exhibition of the Son of God manifested in the flesh to deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life. It is justly called a good and joyful message, for it contains perfect happiness” (115).
The church’s message isn’t about feelings. The commission given to Christ’s Bride is above all to speak “the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). It’s not about easing your conscience or making you feel comfortable when you sit in the pew on Sunday mornings. Indeed, rather, it’s about fixing our gaze on the only thing that matters: the glorious fact that Jesus of Nazareth has come to earth in the “determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” to bear the brunt of all the world’s sin. And such is what he did by shouldering the eternal weight of iniquity on the cross and leaving it behind as he triumphantly walked out of the tomb as the only “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). This means, in short, that we ought to check our expectations for “fuzzy-feel-good” messages at the door. We don’t need “therapist Jesus,” we need dying-and-rising-again Jesus. Trueman continues:
Setting Christ above all in the context of biblical history rather than our own experience will promote a truly high understanding of Christ as Redeemer, and one that will ultimately be of more use than the Christ of Emotional Therapy that would seem today to be the preferred alternative in many circles, itself the result in part of our natural human tendency to place our needs rather than God’s might acts of salvation at the centre of our theology. (123)
It didn’t matter who Peter was up against, he was ready to spit fire and faith and forgiveness. That was his schtick. Peter and the rest of the apostolic gang weren’t “fathering” the early church. They weren’t cheering them on in the game of life where “everyday was a Friday.” No, they went about declaring both the devastation of sin and the deliverance of Jesus’s salvation. They were resolved to preach the forgiveness of sins to deadbeat sinners, which inherently meant that there was a precondition of sin.
So no, Mr. Beck, I will keep sneering, because so long as the Osteens of our day keep on promulgating their saccharine spirituality, there exists a grave need for the type of frankness for which Peter and the church clamored in those nascent days. “And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word” (Acts 4:29). The early church was founded on the urgency of the message that Jesus is Redeemer and King, and that message hasn’t changed. Ever. There’s nothing more important, more necessary, more urgent in our day than the fervent declaration of God’s Word as the only and the ultimate source of grace and truth.
Carl R. Trueman, Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2000).