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: