Tuesday, September 05, 2017

John Pavlovitz: Defeating Secularism by Surrendering To It!

A self-styled 20-year "ministry veteran" and author named John Pavlovitz wrote a post earlier this year about how Christians are to blame for creating atheists (or, at least, Christians who fail to tap dance to the flute upon which the Spirit of the Age tweets his tunes).  I suspect that John's sort of "believer" is more likely to create atheists than any but the most obnoxious and judgmental hypocrites in the conservative camp.  (Not that it's a nice thing to be obnoxious, judgmental or hypocritical -- but then those slippery staircases fall towards Hades from many directions.) 

Let's observe the Pavlovitzian slide step by step.  

John should have been taught to read the Bible, wherein Jesus warned against religious hypocrites with particular acerbity.  Let's make Jesus' actual teaching our standard here, and not trust to John's church or memory, either or both of which may be faulty. 

"Venerable hymn?"  We sang "They'll know we are Christians by our love" as well, but we knew it as a brand new song.  (It was written in 1968.) 

I don't mean to trifle with what I admit must be central in a Christian's life -- "Love God, love your neighbor as yourself," again to go back before the Jesus People to Jesus himself.  For Jesus, love did not exclude speaking frankly and even harshly to those he perceived as being on the wrong track.

But again, if John thinks MAKING disciples is the "heart" of the Christian tradition, he was mistaken, again.  It is BEING a disciple that is central.    

"What a difference a couple of decades make."
Less so, the millennia, it seems.    
This looks like Pavlovitz's central claim.  Contemporary Christianity in America is repelling people because it operates "in full opposition to the life and ministry of Jesus" -- with "bigotry, condemnation, judgement and hypocrisy." 

Maybe that claim is true.  Maybe it is false.  Maybe it is false of some Christians, and true of others.  Maybe it is true of all of us at times, and to varying degrees.   

But if we're going to find out whether Pavlovitz's claim is true or false, we need to begin by rejecting his self-described methodology for telling truth from falsehood.

One cannot determine how tens of millions of Christians act by "just asking around."  That methodology is called "gossip" or "hearsay," and it is both irrational and prone to misleading the investigator.  

That is, unless "conventional wisdom" is always right.  That is, unless the Mass Media is always reliable in its biases.  (Such as against serious Christianity.)  That is, unless people never enjoy being self-righteous, or mocking those who espouse higher moral values than themselves, to justify their own sins, without objectively looking at the facts, first.  

No, let us ask for real, systematic evidence before making any such generalizations as Pavlovitz recommends here.  Because, after all, to leap to judgment is precisely what is called "judgmentalism" or "bigotry," and it would be "hypocritical" to be guilty of the very sins Mr. Pavlovitz warns against, in the process of heeding his warning. 
What does "constant venom towards diversity" mean, for instance?  Should we accuse tens of millions of "fellow Christians" of "venom" without even a sample quote from one of them?  And what does "diversity" mean?  I honestly cannot make heads or tails of that claim.  In all the hundreds of churches I have attended, I have never even heard any criticism of diversity in the abstract.  

And in the concrete, "venom towards diversity" could mean almost anything, however nutty: that Christians hate anyone who eats Pink Rose apples, or roots for the Oregon State football program, or wears dandelions in their hair.  It might be more reasonable to suppose that Pavlovitz is criticizing racists.  Or maybe, on the other hand, he is criticizing Christians who think it is wrong for humans to live in the ocean and spray water like a whale, or make love to turnips, or sleep on their heads.  I suspect Pavlovitz of doing this latter act.

"Diversity" per se it neither good nor bad.  It's nice to have many different cuisines to choose from.  But one does not wish a diverse mix of normal and malignant lung cells on anyone.   

But I suspect we'll arrive at the particularity of Pavlovitz's animus (venom?) shortly.  
We've spent 50 years demonizing non-Christians?  That's most of my life.  Surely I would have noticed! 
If non-Christians were "demons," why, by Pavlovitz's own account, have Christians been trying to win them through love?  (And sociologist Arthur Brooks confirms that strong believers tend to give many times as much to charity and be more charitable in "every measurable way" than those who lack such faith.)  Wouldn't we win demons to our religion more quickly by, say, rituals of human sacrifice?

Hyperbole aside, John no doubt means that Christians think it is a terrible thing to turn away from God.  But I was always told that everyone but One has committed that sin: "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love."  

If any Christians really have been denying the doctrines of human responsibility, human sin, and repentance, then we really have wandered.  But John has yet to offer any evidence that these doctrines have been so entirely neglected, and I don't see it.  
Funny Pavlovitz should bring the word "evidence" into the discussion.  We are most of the way through his article, and have yet to light on hide or hair of evidence. 

By doing what, driving gay bakers out of business for kindly and gently, but firmly, refusing to toss their personal moral codes when making business decisions?  Can ruining people economically be laid at the heads of the majority of evangelical Christians?  Or is that rather a form of persecution against Christians, in which millions of liberals have cheered?  
40 years ago, hardly a society on Earth dreamed that men could or should mate with other men.  So why did Christianity, which agreed with almost universal sentiment and the facts of biology established hundreds of millions of years ago, grow and thrive around the world, while hatefully agreeing with every biology text written before yesterday?  

Is it narrow-minded to agree with the broad mass of humanity down through the ages, and with the very plants and animals as well?  
What "unproved attacks on Muslims?"  
I have not attacked any Muslims.  Nor do I know a single Christian in America who has "attacked Muslims," provoked or unprovoked.  I know Americans who fought ISIS or the Taliban in the Middle East, true, but people on the Left often tell us those folks are not real Muslims.  So Pavlovitz must be referring to something else: pity he's too shy to tell us what it these millions of serious crimes actually are.   
Or perhaps he simply making up lies to smear people he hates.  Whatever it is, Pavlovitz ought to back up his wholesale claims with solid facts and figures.  
In the United States, a country where 70% of the people describe themselves as Christian, thousands of people have been murdered by zealous Muslims during the first years of the new millennium.  I believe in response, 200 million evil "Christians" have killed one or two innocent Muslims and a Sikh mistaken for a Muslim by some low-life, low-information vigilante.  The sheer tolerance of American Christianity is astounding.  Look to India for an informative comparison, if you won't face the reality that Christians in, say, Pakistan or northern Nigeria face every day.    
Maybe not.  Maybe the real cause of that mass exodus, if it occurs, will be dishonest propagandists like yourself, both among atheists and among "believers."
Brooks has shown that in fact, strong believers are far kinder and more generous of time, money, and even blood, than unbelievers.  But the facts are, as usual, obscured by propaganda campaigns.  Rumor weeds run wild, and choke out reality.  And you are part of that, smearing tens of millions of Christians without a single fact or even clearly-stated idea to back up your calumny.  (Let alone genuine and careful inductive reasoning.)  
Hypocrites and those of us whose love is imperfect no doubt will also deserve a part of the blame.  But hypocrites we have always had with us.  Jesus met them and denounced them, but the Church still grew.  Sociologists tell us that indeed, wheat and tares always do grow together, just as Jesus said.  And I have seen enough wheat, enough Christians who fix toilets, listen to lonely old ladies, drive people to airports, rescue prostitutes, sit with drug addicts in their vomit, feed the hungry, and otherwise act out their faith, that I am not going to listen to such wholesale venom by a "ministry veteran" without demanding serious evidence to back up his borderless liable.   
"No, the reason the Church soon will be teetering on the verge of extinction and irrelevance, will be because those entrusted to perpetuate the love of Jesus in the world, lost the plot so horribly, and gave the world no other option but to look elsewhere for goodness and purpose and truth."
The assumption apparently being that "love" means telling people exactly what they wish to hear -- if the secular Left is also preaching that particular message.
Yet I remember a woman who preached the Gospel to gays in San Francisco telling me: 
"Those who listened and got out are still alive.  Those who fell back into that lifestyle, are no longer alive."
She was not preaching a Gospel of hatred, but of love.  Love means telling us all that there are things for which we should be sorry.
And oddly, it seems to be the liberal church that is "teetering on the verge of extinction," if you judge by enrollment in the PC-USA or Anglican churches.  Or not so oddly, if you read sociologist of religion Rodney Stark.    
"Soon these Christians will ask why humanity has rejected Jesus and we will remind them of these days, and assure them that they have not rejected Jesus at all—they just found no evidence of him in the Church."
"Evidence."  There's that peculiar word again.  
Instead of judging your "fellow believers" wholesale with such venom and so few concrete details, John -- well none, let's be frank -- next time please bring evidence sufficient to support the full breadth of your claims, along with clear ideas, and at least the attempt to connect those ideas to the totality of what Jesus taught and modeled.  
The Church often stands against the World.  This does not trouble me.  Believers often find mixed motives inside themselves, even when we stand for what is right, and need at the same time to guard against self-righteousness.  This is no surprise, either.  Other ages of Christians have been far harsher towards skepticism and towards sinners than the present, in which non-judgmentalism towards even horrible evil are smuggled into the Church under the banner of "Grace."
Neither am I surprised to find preachers who preach Secular Humanism in the language of Christian faith, cherry-picking Bible verses to do so.  That's a common strategy that ideologies have used throughout history to propagandize.  Jesus thus warned of "wolves in sheeps' clothing." 
What shocks me is the vacuity of Pavlovitz's shtick -- his utter disinterest in supporting claims with facts, or even defining those claims clearly -- and the fact that he dares use words like "evidence" and "venom" and "hypocrisy," the first positive, the second two negative, in "support" of such an unevidenced, but angry and un-self-critical "argument."  
I know, from broad experience in hundreds of evangelical churches around the world, that while we are all sinners, those churches also include many saints.  I don't consider myself as a particular glorious example.  But as a witness, let me reply to Mr. Pavlovitz, paraphrasing the magistrate of a Roman town when false charges were brought against an earlier generation of Christ's followers, who understood that ad populum was not a just argument: 

"If you have an accusation to make against a brother, there are the courts.  This looks like becoming a mob."  


TheMediocreCommission said...

Hi David. Good post, as always, but I have to admit that I have some sympathies with John's article. There were many reasons why I left the church for many years. Part of it was that I was given bad theology, especially about the nature of Scripture. But also because I saw/felt many of the things in evangelicalism that John notes in his post. But when I returned to the faith 5 years ago, it was to a gay-affirming, progressive Anglican Church, and I found Jesus there - in the liturgy, in the love of the congregation, and especially in the Eucharist. That was my preamble...but I do have a question! Here in Canada, we are rapidly becoming a post-Christian nation (like Britain). And from what I have been reading, the proportion of young people in the States who declare themselves as "nones" is rising, which means that the US isn't too far behind Canada. So what does the research say in the US about why Millenials are leaving the church? Is there a link between how Evangelicals in the States have tied themselves to the Republican Party and the culture wars and why Millenials are growing disillusioned with the Church? Thanks again for your excellent blog!

David B Marshall said...

Oh, I'm sure it's true that when people leave Christianity, they most often have the excuse of lousy Christians around them. I've been blessed to know some of the best Christians, but the sub-par ones are hard to overlook, starting with myself.

I think one of the reasons is that America has become extremely polarized in recent years. With the Left seeing itself as "progressive" and taking positions increasingly distant from traditional Christianity, from the most obvious meaning of Christian teaching, and the New Atheists eager to point out the distance, that does indeed leave Christians in a bit in the lurch. (And then create antagonisms between those who sincerely wish to follow Christ, but seek different solutions to the challenge.)

And I'm sure the issue of "gay marriage" is a big part of it. Of course the Bible has no use for anything of the sort. Christians can hardly be asked to just toss biblical teaching on sex the minute the Spirit of the Age, in its whimsical way, decides that the new dividing line between Good and Evil (even legal and illegal) lies between those who think men can mate with men, and those who do not. And who knows what the Spirit of the Age will say next? From the perspective of Christians with a strong commitment to the Bible, surrendering to such dramatic new dogmas is to surrender the faith.

Sociologically, churches that hold strongly to teachings distinct from the general culture actually tend to do better than those which give in too easily. But in society at large, Christianity becomes a more distinct counter-culture. The pressure is on ordinary people without any strong commitments, to no longer affiliate with this pig-headed and distinctly in-cool minority.

But young people have always tended to lose their faith in college, then regain it later on. And politics wax and wane, as does the percentage of Christians -- it was much lower, by church affiliation, two or three centuries ago, for example. Indeed, "secularization" (see Rodney Stark's article on the subject) is nothing new in western history, nor need it be the final word.

So I don't think the present trends are either that dramatic, nor need they be permanent.

David B Marshall said...

Let me mention one important additional factor: the Cold War. During the Cold War, most Americans perceived communism (correctly) as being both our enemy and as being radically atheistic. People being essentially tribal, this made it natural for those generations of Americans to wish to affiliate with Christianity in some low-key sense. (And if your local church is a good place to meet people and conduct business, so much the better.)

With the collapse of communism, and the rise of a new generation that knows little to nothing about that history, what was an abnormal uniformity in American culture has begun to fall apart. 90% + of Poles may have similarly identified as Catholic, to distinguish themselves from the Orthodox / atheist Russia / USSR. With lower international tension, and domestic tensions taking up some of the slack, domestic affiliation rates were bound to come down.

TheMediocreCommission said...

Very interesting insight on the Cold War and religious identification. That makes sense. I also like your phrase "those who sincerely wish to follow Christ, but seek different solutions to the challenge". Unfortunately, here in Canada (and globally) the Anglican Church is tearing itself apart over the gay marriage issue. I have a feeling that like Abraham and Lot, those on both sides of the issue will have to part ways and go to different lands