Wednesday, July 18, 2012

10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do

This is a provocative book. The publishers must have known what they were doing because, from the cover, you would assume that this was a vanilla, marginally-Christian self-help book - when in fact it is written as an attack on the entire genre and culture from which such books come. The target in Phillip Cary's sight is what he describes as the "new evangelical theology" - a comprehensive phenomenon of consumer-driven piety that strikes at the vitals of Christian religion. The "new evangelical theology" has us, at every turn, turn our hearts inward, while the Gospel that Cary identifies with would have us do precisely the opposite. After all, our hearts are dark and manipulative - why would we look there and hope to find God?

This is a popular book. This is not a book written for review in academic journals. It is through and through pastoral both in scope and style (though ironically written by a philosophy professor). So, those who are looking for the titillation of robustly scholastic vocabulary, or the rollicking back-and-forth jab between theologians of various schools and traditions, or pages covered in footnotes - people like that - people with whom I relate a good bit - will be disappointed. This is a more relaxed, accessible read.

The book is broken into 10 chapters and reads like a very accessible version of D.G. Hart's Deconstructing Evangelicalism. Released nearly 2 years ago, it has already been amply reviewed. What I want to offer here is the text in miniature, a teaser of sorts, which includes one paragraph from each chapter that I found exemplifies the chapter as a whole, along with some minor commentary for context.

The book is written with the sort of moral courage and backbone that its opposition often lacks - and because of that, it is bound to raise objections at some, if not many points. Even though I would recommend the text without reservation, it's worth mentioning that there are some places where I might have some quibbles. But those are few and far between.

Why You Don't Have to Hear God's Voice in Your Heart

A very different kind of spirituality comes to us from the revelation of God in holy Scripture. It frees us to develop our own thoughts and feelings, since we don't have to look for God within our hearts - which is where we are most vulnerable to self-deception and technologies of manipulation. Instead, we can find him in his faithful word. So once again we have doubly good news, about self-knowledge and the knowledge of God. The good news about self-knowledge is that it's okay for your feelings and thoughts to be our own, not the voice of God. For the good news about God is that he makes himself known the way a real person does, by speaking to us from outside our hearts. And precisely that external speaking, when we take it in by faith, gives a new shape to our hearts, conforming us to the image of his Son. That's how our thoughts and feelings and inner voices become a new thing, not merely a product of consumer culture. (p. 14)
The first chapter of the book lays down the premise for which every other chapter is merely an explication: there is not even a hint in Scripture that anyone, anywhere should look inside their hearts to find God AND anyone that would believe that they should look inside their hearts to find God, bring a horrible burden upon themselves: they come to look toward their faith rather than to Christ, the object of our faith; they lose any concept of themselves as responsible moral agents; and their decision-making is often skewed in the direction of evil as it is molded by the culture in which they live rather than the Spirit. But Cary writes to bring good news: you don't have to believe that.

Why You Don't Have to Believe Your Intuitions Are the Holy Spirit

According to this biblical account of the work of the Spirit in our hearts, we won't get a sanctified heart by listening for the Spirit, but by listening to God's word. Knowing the Spirit therefore does not depend on recognizing some special feeling or intuition as the presence of the Spirit. It means knowing Christ through his word, the gospel - a knowledge which is the fruit of the Spirit working in us. And the result, indeed, is that our feelings and intuitions are different. They are still human feelings and intuitions, but they are the feelings and intuitions of a sanctified heart. That is where the work of the Spirit in our hearts is headed. (p. 32)
Human intuition, inklings, hunches, feelings, nudges are wholly helpful, meaningful sources of wisdom. They are the result of a well-trained mind - but they are not to be confused with the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit speaks to us through the audible, external ministry of the Preached Word. ("Faith comes by hearing...") Through ritual reception of biblical exhortation, the Spirit works and reshapes our hearts, our intuitions. Through time, our intuitions can become described as "sanctified," that is "made holy" - which is to say, through time, our own intuitions and discernment has been so shaped by the ministry of the Gospel that it can be said to have been shaped by the Holy Spirit. Any student of the opening chapters of Genesis can tell you that the Holy Spirit is not one to circumvent natural processes - as if to be "supernatural" meant simply "unnatural" or "not natural" - rather the Spirit works with, on, and through creation for the sake of creation (if Genesis 1 is to be trusted). Therefore, it should not surprise us that listening to the Spirit, for Christians, doesn't have to mean something mystically interior ("spiritual"). Rather, we should rest assured that the Spirit sent from Christ works not to replace our feelings and intuitions, but with, on, and through them for their sake.

Why You Don't Have to "Let God Take Control"

I don't think there's any way this makes sense, and I can't tell you how glad I am that I was never forced to believe any of this stuff myself. It looks to me like an awful psychological game, one that really twists you up inside. The only way you can play the game well is to get really good at fooling yourself, while not noticing that's what you're really doing. You have to work very, very hard to convince yourself that you've succeeded in getting God to do everything by "letting" him. An essential part of the trick is to make sure you don't realize how hard you're working to pull it off - because if you're working at it, then you're still just trying to do it in your own strength. (p. 51)
Here, Cary takes issue with the theology underwriting the expression "Let go and let God," an idea that Christian faithfulness consists of only acting with a heart that is purified of any will of our own, as that will may interfere with the will of God. Cary contrasts this theology with the Parable of the Talents (Matthew xxv, 14-30), a parable that compares Christian obedience to the work of a steward. In the parable, the steward who refuses to work because he fears frustrating the work of his master, is the disobedient servant who reaps destruction for dishonoring his master. Letting God "take control" is precisely the opposite of obedience. It is the steward saying to the master, "No, you do it. I don't want to mess this up." Rather, the Christian honors God by taking the talents given him, and shrewdly using them to reap blessings for the Kingdom of God.

Why You Don't Have to "Find God's Will for Your Life"

"I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jer. 29:11).
Those are wonderful words of assurance, and we are right to see that they apply also to us today. But let us pay attention as well to what they do not say: they do not say exactly what God's plans are, nor do they tell us that we are supposed to find out. God knows his plans, and that is enough. He assures us that his thoughts are for our good, and we can trust that. We don't have to find out the details. That is far beyond our ability and he never tells us to try it. (p. 60)
Numerous authors have written about the deeply vexing false doctrine of "God's perfect will for your life." For those unfamiliar, the doctrine teaches that, in addition to God's sovereign will and moral will, there is a third will, the perfect will. The perfect will is the special individual will that's custom fit to every decision in your life; it is God's unique, handcrafted goal for your own personal greatness and glory, and you must find it, not miss it, or you are missing God's best - and so it goes. It's deeply private and only attainable if you "listen to the Holy Spirit" - and it's a doctrine only fathomable in the most narcissistic of civilizations. Not only does this novel doctrine cripple the self-aware and the honest, but it baptizes every questionable decision made by the deluded so that their deepest desires and inclinations are unquestionably Divine.

Why You Don't Have to Be Sure You Have the Right Motivations

Repentance is the healthiest way for a sinful and deceitful heart to focus attention on itself. But the rest of our moral growth comes mainly by looking away from ourselves, which is what loving hearts naturally do. This should not be confused with the attempt to be "unselfish," as if it were a way of denying our own desires and needs. On the contrary, it is the only real way to fulfill our desire for happiness, joy, and delight. For we delight in the people we love, which means the idea that love is all about being unselfish fundamentally makes no sense. (p. 90)
Here, Cary shows that the Christian view of the good does not exclude self-interest or delight. Rather, the Christian seeks the good because it is delightful. The question "What can I do without impure motives?" is a vexing question, vexing because the answer is "Probably nothing." We should take for granted that all our desires contain a mixture of good and bad, confess it, receive our forgiveness, and then look out toward the more important question of "What is right?" We do not do the right because we know we are right, but because we love the good.

Why You Don't Have to Worry about Splitting Head from Heart

So here's the odd thing. It seems obvious to me that thinking about your feelings is a way of bringing thoughts and feelings together. And yet it's precisely when you're thinking about your feelings that people really start worrying that you're splitting your head from your heart. It looks to me that what they're actually afraid of is that the thinking itself is what will split your head from your heart. They seem to have the notion that when there's too much thinking going on in your head, it's somehow a threat to the feelings in your heart. If that's what they're worried about, then what the warning about splitting head from heart really means is: don't think too much. It's not really about bringing head and heart together, but more like trying to protect your heart from your head - by cutting off your head. (p. 99)
Much of what Cary writes causes us to carefully examine what exactly we are thinking and feeling and saying when we "listen for the Holy Spirit" or "let God take control" or "try to find God's will for your life." Cary explains that this very process of self-reflection, the process of thinking rationally about Christian faith and practice is often met with a criticism: this process is "splitting head from heart." Cary turns this criticism on its head. The act of thinking about feelings is intended to bring head and heart together. To criticize this as splitting our emotions from our thoughts is, in truth, a covert way of saying "don't think too much."

Why You Don't Have to Keep Getting Transformed All the Time.

The new evangelical theology is a form of consumerist spirituality, which is why it joins in the game of making you feel guilty for not being transformed often enough. Like self-help books and celebrity magazines, it offers transformations that are pretty shallow - a string of "life-changing experiences," each of which lasts only until the next life-changing experience comes along. But of course convincing you that you always need the next life-changing experience is the real point. To be the same old self, untransformed, would mean to want the same old thing, and consumerism can't stand for that. (p. 120)
Cary chalks up the new evangelical theology to the consumerist culture in which we live. This confused spirituality reduces every call and act of the Christian life to a call to "experience God." Emotional intensity becomes the measure of every act of the Church and those things which do not provide the individual with such emotional intensity ("the experience of God") are demeaned. Rather than written prayers, for example, ex tempore, spontaneous prayers become preferable because they are "from the heart." Moving music is more fundamental than ritual worship since ritual seems bereft of transformative value. Most contemporary worship movements have more to do with capitalism than biblical principles.

Why You Don't Always Have to Experience Joy

Meanwhile, we must wait in hope. And in our waiting we have no authority to speak like Job's friends, blaming the afflicted for complaining too much, trying to make them pay the price for our worldview - as if it were their job to make our faith easier by talking as if their suffering isn't that bad, really. We must hope indeed that all is well, even with the afflicted, even now. But hope that is seen is not hope (Rom. 8:24), which means we cannot see how all is well - not yet. In the company of the afflicted we are in no position to rejoice now, but must weep with those who weep. We have absolutely no authority to torment them by demanding that on top of their suffering they must try to rejoice and experience deep inner joy. (p. 153)
In line with the consumerist call to entice oneself is the utter equivocation of "joy" with the "Christian experience." But as proper as the joy in Christ's resurrection is to the life of the Christian, so is the call to "fill up what is lacking in Christ's suffering." This is to be practiced in our own life as well as in our relations with others. We must imitate the silence of God, at times, as he is as much the God of Holy Saturday as he is the God of the Resurrection.

Why "Applying It to Your Life" Is Boring

It makes all the difference where we look. Preaching the gospel gets us looking at Christ and finding ourselves in his story, rather than looking at ourselves and trying to find Christ in our lives. For our Beloved is someone other than us and if we want to see him, we must look away from ourselves, just like the shepherds and the prophets and the disciples. What makes practical sermons boring is that they insist on turning our attention in the wrong direction, as if the way to find our Beloved was to look at ourselves. (p. 162-3)
I once shared an extensive excerpt from a commentary on Leviticus. A well-meaning friend replied with a litany of questions about it, the chief of which was, "How do you apply this to your life?" The gist of my reply was, "I 'apply' it by 'believing' it." That statement reflects a fundamental principle I aspire to in all my engagement with Scripture. Scripture is not primarily about us, though it addresses us. The proper mode of reading it, then, is to hone in on what it says to us about Christ, and then after we have duly meditated on the richness of what is revealed, only then are we to ask, "Where do I come in?"

Why Basing Faith on Experience Leads to a Post-Christian Future

It used to be that you could say liberal Protestants  tried to base faith on experience, but evangelical Protestants tried to base their faith on the word of God. But the difference is not so clear anymore, as the new evangelical theology that I've been describing in this book keeps getting a firmer grip on the life of American evangelical churches. Although the underlying motives are not exactly the same, evangelical Christians do seem eager to make the same mistake as liberal Protestants. Just think how many Christians you know would answer the question, "What is your faith really about?" by saying something like, "It's about experiencing God working in my life." It's an answer that does not require Christ or mention his name. In a church where that is the expected answer, Christ is in the process of disappearing from view, so that the experience they're talking about is becoming less and less Christian with every generation. (p. 182)
Here, Cary repeats D.G. Hart's in thesis in Deconstructing Evangelicalism, suggesting that while evangelicalism is poised vocally against the liberalism of the mainline churches, it stands strangely in line with it as it becomes increasingly overcome with the new evangelical theology. Cary ends with a prophetic warning.


The gospel is good for us in all the ways the new evangelical theology is not. It is good for our psychological health because it is good news, tidings of comfort and joy. And comfort and joy are not trivial things, for as the proverb says, "By sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken" (Prov. 15:13 KJV). This does not mean believers in the gospel will always feel joyful, for there are times when we share Christ's cross deeply enough that affliction and anguish are all we feel. Yet even in those times the gospel is still a joyful word, joyful in itself though it may not be joyful in us. At all times the gospel is objectively joyful, you could say.(p. 195)
The antidote to the new evangelical theology is Christ and his gospel which dwell in our hearts by the outward grace of faith. To the extent that we look away from ourselves and instead toward Christ, to that extent can we find joy - not the giddy joy of a child at an amusement park - but joy with the depth of God because God himself will be the source of our joy.