Wednesday, December 19, 2012

SOUL DETOX: CLEAN LIVING IN A CONTAMINATED WORLD (2012) - by Craig Groeschel (book review) - Part One of Two

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Even when I know it’s irrational, I still find myself riding a bullet train of worry all the way to the last stop at High Anxiety.
- page 44

Just say no and don’t feel pressure to give an explanation. No - that one word is a complete sentence. If the person you’re dating pushes you sexually, tell them with an attitude, “No ring, no thing, can’t touch this!” Then stand up, start dancing and singing, “If you like it and you want it, put a ring on it!” Seriously, no music video is necessary.
- page 205 _________________________________________________________________________________________

Occasionally, if one ventures to plumb the depths of Christian pop psychology, it is not unfathomable why so many people cultivate a healthy dislike for the reading of books. There are many who only read books that were written in the last decade or so. If you belong to this majority, and, unless you have taught yourself the use of discriminating taste, the odds are that everything you’ve recently read has been poorly written. But, the degradation of quality writing doesn’t stop there. There is poor quality writing and then there is the imitation of poor quality writing. Pastor Craig Groeschel’s Soul Detox: Clean Living in a Contaminated World is of the latter variety. Such second-hand derivations of secular pop psychology currently fills the bestseller lists of the Christian bookseller. If you are unfortunate enough to be reading bestsellers written within the insular American Christian subculture, then the quality of what you read is going to be improbably bad.

I read this book out of curiosity. The image on the cover, consisting of two rubber gloves squeezing chemicals out of a sponge, ought to have given me pause. When you begin reading the English prose of Pastor Craig Groeschel, the air positively begins to reek of bleach. His metaphors alluding to germs and toxins and poisons and “poop” fly around in this book, at first ceaselessly, but that is before his metaphorical exuberance begins to get rather embarrassing. The images of cleanliness in Soul Detox do not give one the impression of health so much as they give one the impression of the cold, white, sterile, antiseptic padded walls and floors of an asylum that Groeschel firmly believes is in sore need of a generous dose of spiritual Pine-Sol.

Perhaps that wasn’t quite correct. Due to prior exposure, I knew in advance that reading the book was going to be a chore. But, while I have criticized popular modern day Christian books frequently in the past, it has been years since I read one. While I have spoken out against what can only be called a “Christianized” version of pop psychology, I have not made it through an entire book consisting of such rubbish for ages. After this experience, I may never read another one ever again. But it was time that I read at least one of them. And, it was also time that I made at least one thorough and systematic attempt to explain why I strongly believe the teaching of modern popular pastors like Craig Groeschel to be fundamentally false and contrary to the truths of Scripture.

As William F. Buckley would say, really, Pastor Groeschel, who is a very nice man, should do a little theological reading “before continuing his contributions to a myth already lapidary” in the history of the Christian church. This myth is of the desirability of a separation between culture and Christianity. Anyone wanting to read some of the best thinking upon the orthodox Christian view of culture would find it profitable to obtain, oh say, Notes Toward a Definition of Culture (1948) by T.S. Eliot, literary critic, social critic, and poet. Or you could, for that matter, read The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), by Carl F.H. Henry, theologian; Christ & Culture (1951) by H. Richard Niebuhr, theological-ethicist; The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus, theologian and apologist; The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (2008), by David F. Wells, distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; or even Beauty Will Save the World (2011) by Gregory Wolfe, literary editor and professed Christian humanist. After reading Soul Detox, I can only conclude that Groeschel has read and reflected upon the thinking and questions raised by none of the above.

Now, a note of caution. I have been warned by friends, whose opinions I hold in high regard, that it is unprofitable to criticize fellow believers. I want to respectfully acknowledge this admonition. But, I believe it ought to be rightly qualified in the case of pastors who, while they may technically offer lip-service to the Christian gospel, also mix outright falsehoods into their teaching. C.H. Spurgeon once made the observation that discernment “is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” I am going to beg the reader to not throw away his or her powers to distinguish. In this review I merely intend to parade by the reader a series of assertions made by Pastor Groeschel in his book, Soul Detox. I propose to do this by quoting Pastor Groeschel.

In his masterful 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal is, by the way, that there is no longer an evangelical mind), church historian Mark A. Noll wrote that for “a theological conservative, it is in fact intensely painful to catalog the intellectual vacuity of twentieth-century evangelicalism, precisely because of how faithfully fundamentalists, pentecostals, Holiness advocates, and conservative evangelicals passed on essential elements of the Christian faith.” Throughout the entirety of this review, I am not suggesting that Groeschel does not comprehend the basics of the Christian gospel when he sticks to Scripture rather than to Christian pop psychology. Neither am I suggesting that he is dishonest or that he has not, in fact, done good work that helps and ministers to people in need. It is rather his work and teaching, of the sort that is evidenced in his new book, that we will focus upon here.

I have found that the first challenge to writing a book review of something like this is not to appear to be nitpicking over unimportant minor details. I must admit that, while reading the declarations of Pastor Groeschel, I found a hundred little things that initially seemed a shame not to address. Therefore, know in advance that I am not addressing everything that ought to be addressed and, by an exercise of self-restraint, this review is only half as long as it could be. Finally, I refuse to condescend to the reader by writing to the lowest common denominator. Instead, I prefer to presume that most readers can follow important distinctions of a hermenuetical order if asked to do so.

On Hermenuetical and Historical Carelessness

Let us begin our substantive discussion with two telling little details from Pastor Groeschel’s writing. There are times when it is the little details that provide clues about the nature of thought engaged in. Throughout his book, Pastor Groeschel offers various explanations of the meaning of different words which he chooses to use. Here is one example:

“Repentance is the word used in the Bible for sincere confession. Re means ‘to turn back.’ Pent means ‘that which is highest,’ like a penthouse. When someone repents, he turns back to God’s highest way of living instead of the lower ways of sin.” (pg. 82.)

Now, if you have any experience in the evangelical world, you will know that this type of flippant definition is now quite common from the modern pulpit. That does not excuse it. First, Groeschel utterly ignores the original Greek word from which the English word is translated. The Greek word, metanoia, signifies a change of mind. It appears, for example, in Thucydides, when he writes that the Athenian council first decided to put all the men in the city of Mytilene to death, but then had a change of heart on the matter. The word metanoia also appears in Plutarch, when he describes the change in the minds of the kidnappers regarding their intentions toward the babe, Cypselus. In the New Testament, William Tyndale was the first to translate metanoia to the English word “repentance” in 1526. Thus, in the New Testament, the word repentance appears to signify (a) eternal salvation in II Peter 3:9: “The Lord is ... not willing that any should perish but that all should come to metanoia;” (b) a change of mind regarding sinful behavior in Luke 17:3-4, where Jesus instructs his disciples to forgive one another when someone “repents” of their sins; (c) a change of mind regarding Christ in Acts 2:38 where St. Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, tells his listeners to “repent” and be baptized; and (d) a change of mind regarding idols in Acts 17:29-31, where St. Paul tells the philosophers at Athens to “repent” of their thinking that the divine “is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (For a more extensive look at the Greek word, metanoia, see Bible Scholar Robert N. Wilkin’s excellent concise discussion in his essay, New Testament Repentance: Lexical Considerations.)

Second, Groeschel utterly ignores the fact that the English word “repentance” derives from the Lain word, paenitentia, which means penitence or regret. To assert, as Groeschel does, that repentance means “to turn back to that which is highest” based upon the groundless coincidence that the letters forming “pent” appear in the word “penthouse” is both absurd and allusive to Gnostic heretical teachings that repentance had to do with turning back to the secret higher ways of “the Spirit.”

Third, Groeschel here utterly ignores some of the most elementary rules of hermeneutics. In his book, Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson lists the “Common Fallacies in Semantics” at the very beginning of chapter one. The very first fallacy is, according to Carson, “the root fallacy.” Carson explains:

“One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word ... We might have guessed as much if we were more acquainted with the etymology of English words.” For example, “... deriving the meaning of “butterfly” from “butter” and “fly,” or the meaning of ‘pineapple’ from ‘pine’ and ‘apple’ ... The search for hidden meanings bound up with etymologies becomes even more ludicrous when two words with entirely different meanings share the same etymology.”

But then, Carson immediately next describes a second fallacy, called the “semantic anachronism”:

“This fallacy occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature. At the simplest level, it occurs within the same language .. But the problem has a second face when we also add a change of language ... This is not just the old root fallacy revisited. It is worse: it is an appeal to a kind of reverse etymology, the root fallacy compounded by anachronism.”

Pastor Groeschel here, has engaged in both fallacies in his method of interpretation. It is better, I believe in these matters, to view flagrant errors of this sort as charitably as possible. Thus, I will choose to give Groeschel the benefit of the doubt and assume he is an honest man and therefore was simply badly taught that he could explain the meaning of the English word “repentance” by looking at the English word “penthouse.” Otherwise, the only other explanation is that he is just making it up as he goes along.

Another minor detail painfully noticeable was that Groeschel produces a common quote from Socrates on the subject of “envy” that commonly appears in books of topical quotations. On pages 115-116, Groeschel introduces this quote: “The philosopher Socrates elaborates on this truth. He wrote ...”  This at first appears to be merely a small historical discrepancy until one remembers that the Greek Socrates, in the history of all the philosophers in the world, is uniquely famous for being the one philosopher who didn’t write anything. Plato, in fact, was the one writing. This is the characteristic of Socrates that presumably elementary school children are told when they go to schools who even bother with teaching history at all. The problem is as follows. Just as a Christian, upon finding an atheist referring to what Jesus wrote, is going to have great difficulty in taking said atheist’s theological literacy seriously, so any educated person, upon finding Groeschel referring to what Socrates wrote, is going to have great difficulty in taking Groeschel’s historical and philosophical literacy seriously. This only matters because of the ideas that Groeschel is explaining and arguing for in his book. However that may be, once again, I prefer making the effort to view such an error as charitably as possible. Pastor Groeschel, after all, gives us evidence that he knows that Socrates was a philosopher, so I naturally assume he knows who Socrates was. So perhaps Groeschel was merely the victim of a momentary lapse of illiteracy on the part of some lowly subaltern editor over at Zondervan publishing.

There were many more small matters of annoyance like these two examples in the book, but I give only these two because they provide rather important clues as to the mode in which the thought contained in the book is expressed. I won’t deny that, in moments of carelessness in the past, I may have allowed similar errors to slip into my own writing. Such are the responsibilities of care belonging to any writer who desires to be taken seriously.

On the Art of the Unpleasant Analogy

Moving along to matters of content, the next problem that I have with Groeschel’s writing is stylistic in nature. It is, quite simply, bad. Even within the limited subject of theology, there are still more masterfully written works of theological literature out there than one person can read in his or her lifetime. Therefore, the question arises why one should ever read the poorly written books on the same subject matter that other great theological minds have better explored. Granted, we must occasionally acquaint ourselves with the temper of the time, but that sort of thing is a most often a chore best left to as minimum a portion of your reading as possible.

I must take the time to object to Pastor Groeschel’s writing style, but not upon grounds of personal taste. That would be pretentious. No, one ought to object to style only in those cases where it is indicative of content. There are precise theological reasons for adopting specific styles. Ultimately my objection to the style of Soul Detox is, as you will see, a theological objection. To begin with, I object to Groeschel’s intoxication with the words, and the idea of the words, “toxic”and “toxin.” His enthusiasm for using both noun and adjective throughout the book is interminable. I could fill multiple pages of quotations merely in demonstration of this semantic misfortune. But I believe the following will give the reader a sense of the book’s flavor. Groeschel writes:

“Why can’t we see our self-generated toxins?” (pg. 25.) “As he flattered himself, Peter was unaware of his toxic self-deception.” (pg. 29.) “For so long, I had been blind to my toxic words and risque humor.” (pg. 32.) “When God reveals spiritual toxins that need to be cleansed, I pray you will have the courage to act swiftly and decisively” “... you can take the toxic influences to Jesus ...” (pg. 35.) “.. reject the toxic thoughts that keep us from God’s best.” (pg. 40.) “Toxic self-talk flowed like sewage through a busted dam.” (pg. 66.) “When we do something wrong and hurtful, we hope to bury our toxic actions so no one will know.” (pg. 73.) “If you’re serious about wanting to detoxify your soul ...” (pg. 75.) “You’ve been hiding toxic behavior ...” (pg. 82.) “The toxic trap lures us to worship and serve created things ...” (pg. 170.) “Let’s wade through the toxic trash and unearth the truth ... Feel the pain of the toxic trap of materialism.” (pg. 170.) “It’s tempting to think you can help, or even rescue, those playing in the gutter of their toxic lifestyles.” (pg. 198.) “... toxic people will make us sick too ...” (pg. 198.) “Contrast toxic religion with the pure gospel.” (pg. 226.)

At first, I assumed that Groeschel was simply using “toxic” and “toxin” as an analogy for “sinful” and “sin.” But my assumption quickly became problematic. He applies the adjective to words themselves:

“Since toxic words can destroy our souls, we’ve got to passionately guard our hearts against them.” (pg. 60.) “Call them what they are - toxic waste. Reject those words.” (pg. 62.) “If you show me a struggling relationship, I’ll show you one filled with toxic words.” (pg. 64.)

A little more tenuous to make “toxic” words the equivalent of “sinful” words, but I could still imagine how he could think it. Nevertheless, I eventually lost the analogy completely:

“Is your well polluted by all the cultural toxins seeping in?” (pg. 17.) “Look within for toxic emotions ... The closer you get to uncovering a toxic killer in your life, the harder your enemy will fight to keep his grip.” (pg. 28.) “The world is full of spiritual toxins, but your mind will not be overcome.” (pg. 51.) “As we move ahead, we’ll look in depth at toxic emotions and how to transform them.” (pg. 75.) “... confession that cleanses you from the toxic residues of sin.” (pg. 84.) “Bitterness is a nonproductive, toxic emotion, usually resulting from resentment over unmet needs.” (pg. 93.) “Our culture oozes with toxic materialism ... Like a smoker enjoying his cigarette, knowing that each puff damages his lungs, many people willingly inhale the toxic lies of materialism ...” (pg. 164.) “When you grow closer to Christ, the toxic temptations of wordly possessions loosen their grip on you.” (pg. 174.) “If you are having a tough time in your marriage, don’t run into the bedroom shouting, ‘You’re toxic so I’m leaving you!’” (pg. 207.)

It would border on theological error to call a temptation sinful. It would be semantically ridiculous to refer to the sinful residues of sin. Sinful materialism? Perhaps, but certainly not sinful emotions since we do not, of our own free will, choose how we feel. And sin, by it’s nature, demands an exercise of the free will. The problem here is that Groeschel, in a book entitled Soul Detox in which he literally goes to the trouble of defining words occasionally erroneously, does not once in the entire book give a straightforward definition of what he means by the word “toxic.” On page 214, he even refers to a “toxic religion.” Stylistically, this is intentionally vague. But then, with a little reflection upon my experience in the church, I suspect what he is unclearly hinting at. Groeschel writes: “But consuming spiritually toxic material from our culture without discernment can kill you.” And then, on the very same page, he writes: “However, we rarely recognize the negative impact of the cultural diet we consume daily. Like a dieter with a new bag of potato chips, we start with one or two and suddenly find ourselves thirsty with an empty bag in our hands.” (pg. 181.) The best educated guess any reasonable person with evangelical church experience could make as to Groeschel’s meaning is that by “toxic” he means what most Christians mean by the word “worldly.”

The manner in which Christians use the term “worldly” is quite clever. Raised in an evangelical background, I grew up with the impression that there is a verse in the Bible that instructs us to be “in the world, but not of the world.” It was only later, when I began questioning what I had been taught, that I discovered to my surprise that this Bible verse does not, in fact, exist. The closest thing to it appears in one of Christ’s last recorded prayers in the Gospel of John. Jesus prays: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world ... They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14-16.) There is a very important distinction here between what Scripture actually says and what I was taught that it said. Christ is merely describing a fact that is true about the disciples - they are, in a sense, because of their allegiance to Him, otherwordly. He is not instructing them that they are to attempt to be “not of the world.” If one is actually trying to be “not of the world,” one will think and act quite differently than if such a fact is merely true about oneself.

Now, here is the trick. Contrary to St. Paul’s explicit teaching (see Colossians 2:20-23 for one example), many modern day evangelicals find that there are many things out there that cause them differing levels of discomfort. The difficulty lies in the fact that many of these uncomfortable things are not declared to be sin by Scripture. So instead of calling many of these things sinful, evangelicals have resorted to calling them worldly. Then, with the minor adjustment of treating John 17:14-16 as if it were a command rather than a descriptive statement, the modern Church teaches that Christians are forbidden from being worldly. The veritable genius of this adjustment in Christian teaching is that Scripture does use the worldly to mean sin. But now, Christians can call things that Scripture does not declare to be sin to be “wordly” and therefore prohibited. The result of this sleight of hand is that there is now a large amount of Church teaching against engagement within culture that declares such engagement “worldly” verboten.

I reject this underhanded misuse of Christ’s and St. Paul’s straightforward declarations. Thus, I reject Groeschel’s use of the word “toxic” to accomplish precisely the same effect. Further evidence that this is exactly what Groeschel is doing in Soul Detox can be demonstrated by how rarely he ever refers to the words “sin” or “sinful.” Sin is a fact about human nature that is at the very heart of the teaching of Christianity. Groeschel cheapens this doctrine by using vaguer terms like “toxin,” or “poison,” or, lamentably, even “poop.”

Groeschel even becomes rather excited about using his “poison” analogy, and it still is specifically designed to discuss “wordly” aspects of culture that he desires the Christian to avoid at all costs:

“... many parents were unknowingly poisoning their kids with secondhand smoke.” (pg. 11.) “Once you acquire a taste for wholesome thoughts and godly thinking, your mental palate becomes more sensitive to the taste of poison.” (pg. 48.) “Do whatever it takes to keep the poison out of your heart.” (pg. 60.) “Because the root of bitterness defiles and poisons ... No one can see the poison coursing through your veins ... Over time, our bitterness poisons our hearts.” (pg. 95.) “And the more its flagrant poison infiltrated my soul.” (pg. 96.) “We must learn to recognize envy in all its forms and have the antidote for its deadly poison close at hand ... Like poisonous mushrooms or toxic mold spores, envy takes on a variety of forms.” (pg. 111.) “Fear poisons us a little each day ...” (pg. 143.) “... focusing negatively ... can lead you down a poison path to worry rather than leading you to positive action.” (pg. 147.) “We dive into the pool of poison with a ‘play now, pay later’ mindset.” (pg. 165.) “When it comes to anything we consume, a little bit poison goes a long way.” (pg. 183.) “Sadly, the purity of the gospel is often tainted by poisonous people.” (pg. 214.)

He continues in this vein ad nauseam. We will take a look at his unpleasant “poop” analogy later. As a matter of style, however, this allows Groeschel to inveigh against culture in ways that never appear in Scripture. Another consequence of this stylistic choice leads not only to the substitution of atrocious analogies in the place of passages of Scripture for the support of his assertions, but also to writing of the most abominable and oppressive sort. The English language simply withers under Pastor Groeschel’s abuse of it.

Consider the forced smoking analogy: “If you’re aware of the truth, then you should be upset, because you’ve been breathing some-polluted thoughts.” (pg. 18.) “Why? Because you’ve smoked the culture’s cigarette and inhaled the lie.” (pg. 168.) I’ll grant him that breathing polluted thoughts does sound rather irksome to the nostrils. But this sort of thing begins to pile up very quickly:

“Like a firewall protecting your computer, you need to remain vigilant against Satan’s lies that threaten to corrupt the hard drive of your mind.” (pg. 41.) “We hold the key in our minds but lose sight of it in the junk drawer of our negative thoughts.” (pg. 41.) “If you let weeds grow in your garden too long, they will choke out the truth and smother your joy. You’ll be forced to eat weed salad ...” (pg. 43.) “Amid the bounty of blessings we experience daily, thoughts of dissatisfaction pop up like pimples on a teenager.” (pg. 45.) “Think about the difference between two birds: a vulture and a hummingbird ... The ugly oversized bird doesn’t stop until he finds lifeless, rotting road kill. Contrast the vulture to the tiny hummingbird ... what does this small bird find? Not dead things and disgusting rancid meat, but instead, sweet, life-giving nectar.” (pg. 50.) “I envision an old, termite-infested house being transformed by a good exterminator and a construction crew from HGTV. Think of it as ‘Mind Makeover: God Edition’!” (pg. 52.) “Delete toxic words and insert the truth.” (pg. 62.) “If you show me any marriage that is limping along, I’ll show you a marriage filled with word darts flying recklessly through the air.” (pg. 64.) “But the desires of his body shut down his brain and stamped DENIED across the application of his willpower.” (pg. 78.)

The words lumber along shamefully in front of the embarrassed eyes of the reader, protesting their servitude to meaningless platitude. One feels sorry for them immediately, but their bondage yields to moments of forgetfulness, where one suddenly loses the ability to fathom how exactly it is that the author’s mind really works. What, on God’s green earth, does a writer have to be thinking, for example, when he writes a sentence like the following: “We would do well to remember that envy is clearly the flint that ignites evil in our hearts. It apparently signals ‘I’m available’ to demons searching for a cheap date.” (pg. 115.) What images have come to his mind when he feels impelled to write: “When was the last time you invited the devil into your heart for a sleepover? Strange question? Not if you consider Ephesians 4:26-27 ... If you open the door to the devil through your anger, you’re offering him a guest room inside your heart. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!” (pg. 130.) Ah, I just read it again to make sure, and that is not what St. Paul was alluding to in the Epistle to the Ephesians.

I’ll spare the reader by only exhibiting a few more disconsolate members of the analogy gallery of shame:

 “Fear is ... allowing your imagination to wander down a long dark alley of possibilities and get mugged every couple of steps.” (pg. 146.) “They might own an iPhone, iPad, iPod, but they can’t afford to feed their iBody dinner at a restaurant without going into debt.” (pg. 164.) “It’s better to eat a salad with those you love than to have a steak after you divorce.” (pgs. 175-176.) “We must disinfect our hears with the germ-killing power of the truth.” (pg. 180.) “And as your discernment becomes camouflaged by cultural standards, your spiritual priorities will disappear.” (pg. 186.)

At some point, as you continually read turns of phrase like these again and again, you begin to fear that the author has attended some sort of school for the writing of trendy sounding trite expressions of absurdity. (Craig Groeschel received a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from Oklahoma City University before he received a Master of Divinity from Philips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.) “Why is it so hard to keep our well-intentioned goals?,” Pastor Groeschel asks his long-suffering reader, “I believe it’s because most of us have good intentions rather than God intentions.” (pg. 230.) I, for one, strongly object to what that seems to imply about God’s moral nature. And, of course, if it doesn’t imply what I hope it doesn’t, then Groeschel has really succeeding there in saying nothing really at all - a success in the exercise of expression that he excels at.

On the Art of Inserting One’s Foot Into One’s Mouth

Another trait of an author that frequently irritates the common reader is when an author assumes the reader’s stupid obsession with the banal and the trivial. There are many good reasons for one to commit to sitting down and taking the time and investment necessary to read through an entire book. These reasons include refreshment from a good story about the loves and losses of humanity, pleasure in a carefully crafted and instructional argument, education from a scholarly exhibition of history, admonition upon the exercise of a virtue or the revelation of the spiritual realm, edification from an erudite theological exercise, or even laughter from a genuinely funny, jolly, or satirical writer. What we don’t need are appeals by the author to the weaker or less admirable parts of our nature. Such appeals, and they must be popular somehow, are absolutely among the demonstrated powers of Pastor Groeschel.

He writes: “You might have a friend who thinks he’s God’s gift to women, but you and everyone else know he’s an arrogant, womanizing, self-centered jerk.” (pg. 26.) Not, perhaps, the most benevolent way to view a few of my friends, but yes, I might. “You possibly work for a woman who thinks she’s a great leader at the office, but everyone else knows that she is a micromanaging, overbearing, control freak.” (pg. 26.) That’s obviously the sort of talk that is going to be offensive, given that Groeschel comes up with “control freak” to describe the woman, but still, he wasn’t very nice to the womanizer either. “Perhaps,” he writes, “without even knowing it, you are consumed with criticizing ... You meet someone and instantly think, ‘I can’t believe she’s dressed like that - surely, she knows how trashy she looks in that dress. And way too much makeup. Just listen to her name-dropping - give me a break.’” (pg. 46.) Perhaps, without our even knowing it, there might be a reasonable argument along the lines that the quantity of persons, with the character flaw of being “consumed with criticizing,” might just decrease directly in proportion to an increase in the quantity of readers who decided to stop reading Pastor Groeschel’s books.

Again, as a good Christian, one ought to make a strong effort to be magnanimous towards one’s neighbor, even if that neighbor happens to be the author of Soul Detox. Maybe it isn’t his fault. “Have you ever been caught in a lie?,” he insists upon asking us, “If you said no, I’m guessing you were just caught again!” (pg. 71.) ... Now remember, "magnanimous" means to be very forgiving, generous, large hearted, high minded ... “If you know anything about me, it’s possible you’ve heard that I tend to be, ahem, rather ‘conservative’ financially. I can own that.” (pg. 109) Please don’t use expressions like “I can own that.” Who talks in this fashion, anyhow? Was Groeschel confiding in us there?  He is, ahem, rather conservative. Not conservative enough with his confidences to the reader about his own virtues. But there I go, losing my sense of charity again. It’s like a test. He’s writing faux funny to see how charitable we can remain.

After all, Groeschel’s confidences to us include what he believes to be his personal faults too: “I used to have a really bad habit that I now believe was insulting to God. In fact, just being honest, I still have to work not to do it. I would qualify my thankfulness with a big ‘but.’ If someone said, ‘I really like your house,’ then I said something like, ‘Yeah, it’s great, we really love it, but we really need to redo the kitchen’ ... Then God’s Spirit really began to convict me: I needed to get rid of my big buts ... I heartily encourage you to do the same; get rid of your big buts. Be thankful. No more buts.” (pgs. 122-123.)

How juvenile does he believe the reader to be? Does he really expect the reader to believe that God's Spirit told him to get rid of his big buts?  Perhaps he is just oblivious to what he just did there. Yes, perhaps that’s it. But again, if I keep quoting examples in what is merely a book review, I realize I may lose some readers to despair. The anecdotes of an autobiographical nature in Soul Detox are considerable in number. Consequently, let’s limit this to only three more.

Mentioning how the Pharisees kept bothering Christ, Groeschel explains: “If I had Jesus’ power, I don’t know if I could have been so kind. I might raise my hands, and bam! they’d all have hemorrhoids. Okay, so maybe that’s just me.” (pg. 139.) Maybe that’s just Groeschel making a joke. Describing the romance of his honeymoon, he writes: “We walked by the river, talked until late at night, and even played card games - not to mention getting to know each other in the biblical sense!” (pg. 166.) Why the exclamation mark at the end there? Is this aspect of their honeymoon supposed to be a surprise? And if not, then why mention it at all? Why? Telling the story of how he once spoke to a young man who didn’t know he was the pastor, Groeschel reveals his ideal ending to the conversation: “Looking around nervously, he leaned in and whispered, ‘My pastor says the pastor of Life Church doesn’t preach the truth.’ I leaned in and whispered back, ‘Your pastor needs to be circumcised, and I volunteer to do it.’ Okay, so I didn’t say that. But boy, I wanted to!” (pg. 219.) In what world is the desire to circumcise a theological opponent as a punishment for disagreeing with you supposed to be even remotely funny? Racking my brains, I can only think of the world of the Judaic legalists of the Jerusalem Council that St. Paul fought so persistently against in the Book of Acts, chapter 15.

On the Disadvantages of Your Brain Thinking in Clichés

When writing, there is, once in a blue moon, a time and a place for using a cliché in your English prose. But this is not to be encouraged, let alone indulged in without moderation. In his indispensable book (for every writer with even the smallest fraction of an aesthetic sensibility), The Writer’s Art, editorial columnist and grammarian James J. Kilpatrick titled his fourth chapter “The Things We Ought Not To Do.” General rule Number One is “We ought not to use clichés.” In support of this passionate belief, Kilpatrick cites “Dr. Louis DeBakey, one of the top-ranking prescriptive linguists of our time ...” He then takes his first principle from her:

“Clichés, said Dr. DeBakey, ‘are the language of thoughtlessness,’ and indeed they are. They are poor, tired, but comfortable and familiar cubbyholes to which we retreat when imagination fails us. All of us recognize clichés. They fall like casual dandruff on the fabric of our prose. They are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. If we consider all the uses of our words, surely we can find something better than the bromide - for a bromide, by definition, is a chemical compound used as a sedative. Bromides put us to sleep.”

Unfortunately for the reader of Pastor Groeschel’s book, his relentless citation of clichés is, in fact, the very essence of his writing style. Instead of using one or two to mediocre effect, he uses them so ceaselessly that your mind begins to grow numb in the desperate attempt to alleviate the pain. Here is a random selection of just a part of Groeschel’s cliché menagerie:

“As the old computer adage reminds us: garbage in, garbage out.” (pg. 16.) “The first step to defeating an enemy is to recognize your opponent.” (pg. 28.) “... you can’t overcome a sin that you can’t identify.” (pg. 39.) “We have to know what we’re fighting against, what we’re fighting for, and how to spot the enemy.” (pg. 41.) “A close cousin to negative thinking is fearful thinking.” (pg. 43.) “If there’s anything you think that God would find unholy and displeasing, flag it ... Once you have identified toxic thoughts, it’s time to take action ...” (pg. 47.) “Decide the destination of your mind.” (pg. 50.) “I recently took the meaning of busted to a whole new level.” (pg. 71.) “... the tempting knock of bitterness on the door of your heart.” (pg. 95.) “Bitterness can also destroy a family faster than you can say, ‘Pop goes the weasel.’” (pg. 99.) “Or if it’s not car craving, it’s a boat bloat!” (pg. 112.) “‘Every evil practice’ sounds like a profoundly big deal to me.” (pg. 114.) “Whether served hot or cold, anger stew is a poisonous dish, a carcinogen that will grow a cancer inside you.” (pg. 134.) “Talk about a holiday hangover - Visa was not everywhere he wanted to be.” (pg. 161.) “‘Does money buy happiness?’ Most people I know would say without hesitation, ‘No, money doesn’t buy happiness.’” (pg. 167.) “Someone said it’s not wrong to have things. It’s wrong when your things have you.” (pg. 176.) “You have to admit, our parents must’ve been on the debate team at some point. Where else would they learn the classic line, ‘If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you? Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right.’” (pg. 186.) “It’s better to be safe than sorry. (Sorry, I just sounded like your mom again.)” (pg. 190.)

Yes, that is correct. Groeschel is of the opinion that using a cliché would be a considerable advantage if one happened to be a member of a debate team. This no holds barred approach to excessive cliché use in his writing (their name is Legion for they are many) ignores the elephant in the room. Groeschel is clearly not thinking outside the box. He is borrowing overused expressions and citing them as if no reader is going to smell a rat. Rapid fire at the speed of light cliché use is as sour grapes to any conscientious reader. It makes the reading of the book last for an eternity. After ten clichés before the first chapter is over with, the poor reader suddenly experiences the dawning horror at seeing the writing on the wall. He or she is going to have to possess nerves of steel to make it through the book because they are never going to stop. Groeschel’s writing style, without a care in the world, clearly intends to make lemonade out lemon clichés. He’s advocating for what he says is the straight and narrow way, but, in this case, a spoon of sugar does not help the medicine go down. One can only assume that, when Soul Detox hit the presses, Groeschel’s editors were out to lunch.

At this point in time, you may think I’m making a much ado about nothing here, but the fly in the ointment, in Groeschel’s case, is that he has to only be preaching to the choir in order to strike a responsive chord for readers who will just blindly accept his clichéd writing hook, line and sinker. After all, a fool and his money are easily parted. Not to harp on a single theme here, but when he starts seriously instructing us that the jangle, “Sticks and stones may brake my bones, but words can never hurt me”, is not a reliable saying, “just because it’s spouted by first graders doesn’t mean it’s true” (pg. 56), one wants to scream and throw in the towel. All’s well that ends well is not always true. It may be that Groeschel’s book is selling like hotcakes now, but this is still the tail end of the year it was released. Bottom line? To be honest, not everyone is going to fall head over heels for this sort of unimaginative mimicry. At the end of the day, only the test of time will tell whether anyone at all remembers this book. But, that’s no excuse. For the clunky writer, the use of clichés is often “as numerous as flies in a cowbarn,” warns Kilpatrick, “and in most instances they are about as welcome.” Last but not least, all that glitters is not gold.

This isn’t merely a stylistic problem. The over-reliance upon the cliché for the purposes of teaching is another clue that provides evidence of the lack of critical thinking and unquestioning acceptance of the merely popular. Take for instance the word “religion.” One of the most tired clichés in the Christian church right now is an unhistorical faddish insistence upon claiming that Christianity is not a religion. Groeschel happily adopts this fad as an easy way to distance himself from the appearance of costly Christianity. There are now evangelicals of a stomach too weak for allowing the word religion to apply to their faith. Thus, they redefine the word, giving it a definition not found in the English Dictionary in order to justify their use of it in a way that does not align with the way everyone else in the world uses it.  It's all for the sake of avoiding the uncomfortable. This is, at best, a rather underhanded rhetorical tactic used by the high school debater. At worst, it is a argumentative device exercised by the politician drowning in equivocation.

Pastor Groeschel includes a subheading in his twelfth chapter entitled “Relationship Eats Religion for Breakfast.” In this chapter he tells us the following story:

“... ‘I told you,’ he bellowed, trying to appear in control but clearly exasperated, ‘I’m not religious, and I can’t stand religious people!’

I looked at him for a moment in silence and then decided to tell Steve the truth: ‘We’ve got a lot in common then. I’m not religious, and I can’t stand religious people either!’

Steve stared at me awkwardly, like a cow watching burgers on a grill. ‘What do you mean?’ he sputtered. ‘But I thought you were a pastor?’

As best I could, I explained that God didn’t send his only Son to earth in order to die for the sake of a new religion. I told Steve that I honestly don’t like people who are wrapped up in legalistic religion and that Jesus himself corrected that type of person many times in his ministry on earth. I explained that Jesus came for those who were sick, not those who thought they were well and better than everybody else.

After a long conversation, Steve said, ‘I like you - you’re honest. You are the first nonreligious pastor that I’ve ever met.’

It may be one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. Contrary to what many believe, Jesus did not come to earth to make us religious. He came to set us free ... Christianity is not intended to be one of the world’s major religions, but rather it is supposed to be a relationship with the one, true, living God through his Son, Jesus.” (pgs. 212-213.)

I will attempt to ruin this popular cliché at the beginning of Part Two of my review of Soul Detox. Then I will examine: first, the pop psychology of Pastor Groeschel’s book; second, the exhibition of egregious logical fallacies that Soul Detox frequently indulges in; third, Pastor Groeschel’s argument that Christians ought to separate themselves from culture; fourth, his argument that Christians ought to separate themselves from other people; and fifth and finally, the destructive consequences that these absurd false teachings are having upon the modern day Church.

To Be Continued ...
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References to Part One:

Carson, D.A., Exegetical Fallacies: Second Edition, 1996

Groeschel, Craig, Soul Detox: Clean Living in a Contaminated World, 2012

Kilpatrick, James J., The Writer’s Art, 1984

Noll, Mark A., The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 1994

Online Etymology Dictionary, repent (v.), 2001-2012 Douglas Harper

Wilkin, Robert N., “New Testament Repentance: Lexical Considerations,” from the Series “Repentance and Salvation,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Volume 2, No. 2, Autumn 1989

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for the time and care you took in posting the first half of your review. It seems like you're reviewing Soul Detox as though it were literature, and it makes me wonder if you think there is a place for casual, conversational style in Christian books? I see you disagree with the substance of the book as well as the style, and you do a nice job of demonstrating how the two are related - how the style is really a component of the substance. I think of other things I've read that have that particular "emergent church" style - lots of sentence fragments, choppy and abrupt, doggedly casual as though the author is trying to prove they aren't "B.S.ing you," (I can't think of a more polite way to say it,) and sort of a merging of freestyle poetry and prose. (I see it in a lot of the self-promotion copy from marketing and graphic design firms too, come to think of it; maybe it isn't just an emergent church phenomenon.) I'd be curious to know if you've noticed what I'm describing and whether you feel it has a place and a use, even though it isn't scholarly. When I first read things in that style, they seemed fresh and edgy, but now they seem cliche and I'm thinking they will ultimately seem very dated when the fad passes. Writing that way is kind of like affecting an accent: once you get into the swing of it, it's pretty easy, and therefore even though the style aims to be unique, unpretentious, disarming and honest, it ends up being pretty cheap and generic.

    Lastly, I have to express a little sympathy for Pastor Groeschel. I'd hate to see what your review would look like if you weren't holding back. I suppose Groeschel could take it as a compliment that you've devoted so much effort to such a thorough and serious review of his work. He seems to be the unlucky one to be made an example of, and I hope if he were to read this review he could use it to challenge himself. The flaws you point out remind me of so much of what I wrote as a college student. In my defense, I was being asked to write papers about things I had only minimal knowledge of, so I did my best, but I had a lot of fun trying my hand at a scholarly tone that I didn't really have any business assuming. I had what Groeschel seems to have: some Christian principles I cared about, and some ideas that seemed good or interesting but probably could be easily dismantled by any real expert or serious intellect. Your review makes me nervous that us "medium intellect" types are better off only reading what others have written, and not offering anything of our own. Given your review, how would you recommend Groeschel proceed, assuming his motives in writing Soul Detox are genuine and pure?

    Looking forward to Part II of your review!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the thoughtful and kind comments. I’ll try to briefly answer the main questions you bring up.

      First, I agree that there is a place for a casual, conversational style in books that discuss Christianity. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton both exhibited this style. But I don’t think that excuses a style that adopts the thinking of typical self-help books, which operate under assumptions that contradict the basics of Christianity. If there really is an “emergent church” style that demonstrates fragmented thinking, then it is a style that is based on Deconstructist and Nominalistic thinking - which is not part of Christian thought.

      Second, I also agree that not all religious literature need be scholarly. Frederic Buechner, George MacDonald, and other writers like A.W. Tozer, have written a number of very simplistic works for the Christian layman. There is a beauty to them. Timothy Keller writes some of his books this way also. The problem is that if Groeschel’s writing reminds you of some of your college writing when you only had a very minimal knowledge of your subject, then that is not a good thing. Groeschel purports to be a pastor and teacher with authority in the Christian church. If he is really serious about helping the people who listen to him for help in their lives, then he should start reading and studying the thoughts of some of the other great pastors and preachers from church history instead of mimicking pop culture.

      Personally, I don’t have anything other than a mediocre intellect of my own. I have to work very hard to write and think through almost anything. It takes a large amount of discipline and thought. With my own limitations, if I’m able to work through some of the basics of Christianity, then so can anyone else.

      I just posted the second half. In it, I address more of the substantive problems in the book that I found rather depressing. Groeschel’s motives might be sincere, but I still worry at what the results of his teaching can cause.

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  2. Love to read your writing. It is so helpful. Hope the isagenix forum can help you more.

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