Saturday, March 2, 2013

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


There is often a critique within contemporary spirituality of consumerism, seeking happiness in things, and of an unthinking life of sensual self-indulgence.  I, like many others, see value in such a critique - but fear that spirituality is a dead-end response.  It is a response that is a fleeing from these things - not an engagement with them.  Spirituality cedes the world to the worldly.  It misses the opportunity to renegotiate the nature of what it is to be worldly, and of the world.  Fleeing down an avenue of detachment from the world, we are at danger of not only leaving political and social justice behind us, but along with the flight from reason ..., there is a danger of descending into a self-regarding and relativistic sentimentality, driven by solipsistic emotionality.

... In conventional religion, once you accept its fundamental tenets, you are challenged in two primary ways.  Firstly, there may be beliefs, or doctrinal notions, that you find hard to believe.  You cannot abandon them though, and have to enter into a reflective, thoughtful, possibly hermeneutic process to try and make sense of them.  It challenges you to take propositional statements, doctrinal beliefs, as serious and worthy of engaging with, no matter how painful and challenging that engagement becomes ... [R]eligion demands that we resist, or at least seek to resist, our most selfish desires.  If we follow a religious faith, with sincerity, we are challenged to do some very difficult ethical work: to put others first; to love enemies; to forgive those who do wrong; to cultivate humility.  While many will readily admit of their failure in these tasks, ... for someone who takes their beliefs seriously this is a central aspect of the religious life.  The ethical challenge of faith demands that we strive to a model of character that does not let us off the hook when it matters ... [I]t is clear that a 'spiritual but not religious' life makes no such demand.
- David Webster, Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy

For Part One, click here.

If you are a Christian, one of the most depressing facts about modern day life is the anti-intellectual psuedo-Christianity that now seems to dominate the most conspicuous expressions of the Christian faith.  Over the last decade or so, the most commonly read and talked-about books from the Church have ended up presenting Christ as a self-help expositor of an all-inclusive obscurantist drivel.  The list of best-sellers currently being read most often by the American Christian is, quite frankly, embarrassing.

The Prayer of Jabez (2000) by Bruce Wilkinson, The Purpose-Driven Life (2002) by Rick Warren, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (2004) by Joel Osteen, Chazown: Define Your Vision. Pursue Your Passion. Live Your Life on Purpose (2006) by Craig Groeschel, Become a Better You (2007) by Joel Osteen, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (2010) by Todd Burpo, Lord Deliver Me From Negative Self Talk (2012) by Lynn Davis, To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story (2012) by Mary C. Neal, The Harbinger: The Ancient Mystery That Holds the Secret of America’s Future (2012) by Jonathan Cahn, I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life (2012) by Joel Osteen, and Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012) by Eben Alexander and more ... all are designed to help the reader feel good about himself or herself.  All, whether intentionally or unconsciously, replace critical thinking with wishful thinking, positive self-talk, easy acceptance of who you are, and monotonous self-affirmations of your hidden inner potential.

The most popular (and money-making) teachings of the modern Church are characterized by both the trite pop slogans of the non-critical-thinker and a very distinct estrangement from the entire history and tradition of orthodox Christianity, as it has been expounded and defended over the last two thousand years.  In his book, Soul Detox, Pastor Craig Groeschel takes these modern presumptions and then additionally adds to them one of the worst of weaknesses from fundamentalism: cultural separatism.  If the optimist part of you had ever wondered if, at the very least, all this modern self-help schlock may have abrogated the “need” for a Christian subculture, Craig Groeschel has taken very great pains to cure you of any such hope or illusion.

At the end of Part One of this book review, we paused with Groeschel instructing a doubter on the "secret" truth that Christianity, after all, is not a religion but a relationship.  If you wanted to ditch Christian theology and replace it with a collection of motivational aphorisms, this is as good a place to start as any.  Therefore, we will begin here with Groeschel’s thoughts on the subject.

On the Absurd Modern Conceit that Christianity is Not a Religion

The equivocation that Christianity is not a religion was old and tired when 22-year-old Jefferson Bethke uploaded his hip-hop-lite hipster YouTube video, "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus" back on January 10th of 2012.  In the video, Bethke combined a long collection of hackneyed adages to come up with lines like the following:

“What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion? ... I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars? Why does it build huge churches but fails to feed the poor? Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce? But in the Old Testament God actually calls religious people whores ... They can’t fix their problems and so they just mask it, Not realizing religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket, See the Problem with religion is it never gets to the core, It’s just behavior modification like a long list of chores" ... and so on and so forth.

Groeschel aligns himself right beside the thoughts of young Bethke:

“Did I mention that I can’t stand religious people?” (pg. 217.)  “Rules-following religious people believe their behavior and beliefs are right and everyone else is wrong.” (pgs. 217-218.) “Thankfully, Jesus didn’t come to make us religious.” (pg. 219.) “We don’t need religion.  We need Christ.” (pg. 222.) “Religion is Christ plus anything ... But the gospel is Christ plus nothing.” (pg. 226.) “Any time you stumble into toxic religion, you’ll likely see two poisonous problems.  The first is that religion leads you to focus on the external rather than the internal ... [Second, n]ot only does religion focus on the externals rather than the internals but this external emphasis produces an internal pride.” (pgs. 215-217.)  “Toxic religion puffs up its host.” (pg. 219.) “In fact, in many ways, Life Church was a result of my frustrations with religion.” (pg. 216.)  “A religious person might say proudly, ‘I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t chew, and I don’t run with girls who do,’ assuming their behavior makes them righteous.  Your behavior will never make you righteous.” (pg. 221.)  “Some people have a ‘head knowledge’ of Jesus but not a ‘heart understanding’ of the gospel.  They miss his life by about eighteen inches.” (pg. 220.)

In fairness, Groeschel and Bethke are not alone.  Pastor Mark Driscoll is equally as guilty in perpetrating this sort of talk.  So is Pastor James A. Fowler, director of "Christ in You Ministries" and author of Christianity is NOT Religion.  I originally thought that the old trope that allowed cool hip Christians to deny what they belonged to a religion originated in the 1970s.

But, it appears as if theologians of the past have had to deal with this semantic device as far back as Paul Tillich's 1955 Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality.  Looking more closely, how does Groeschel distinguish Christianity from religion?  He does so merely by redefining the word differently from how it is used in the English language.

The 2012 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition defines “religion” as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural ... commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance ... a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”  The 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language is even more specific: “Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God, and also true godliness or piety in life, with the practice of all moral duties.  It therefore comprehends theology, as a system of doctrines or principles, as well as practical piety, for the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion.”

Such a rich traditional understanding of religion, let alone the most common of meanings of a widely used English word, is beyond Groeschel.  Instead he writes:

“In fact, religion is defined as any system, set of rules, expectations, or regulations that promises God’s acceptance in return for human effort ... Some scholars even argue that the root of the word religion means ‘return to bondage.’” (pg. 214.)

Without again bothering with Groeschel’s woefully inadequate methods for determining the roots of words, it is easy to see here that Groeschel wants “religion” to mean a system of rules, regulations, restrictions, expectations, etc.  Something much too demanding for the modern believer.  He's not entirely off base in thinking of religion as a structured system.  After all, more simplistically, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language defines religion as “1. Virtue, as founded upon reverence of God ... 2. A system of divine faith and worship ...”

But it is only upon modern assumptions that you would equate "a system" with bondage.  Structure, tradition, hierarchy, order, custom, law ... these are all aspects of religion that older thinkers believed essential to the exercise of freedom in the first place.  It is only by systematic and orderly thinking that we prevent harm.  It is only by the recognition of limits, to both thought and behavior, that we come to take responsibility for what we ought.  But now, we wouldn’t want to speak in terms as uncomfortable as “obligation” or “duty” which, according to Groeschel, have nothing to do with our relationship with God anyhow.  He doesn't even mention the fact that the majority of Christian theologians found nothing non-complementary about spirituality and structure. Thus, he continues to disavow any such burden:

“Religion puts the burden on us.  We have to do what is right.  A relationship with Christ puts the burden on him.  And because of what he did for us, we get to do what is right.  Instead of an obligation, our right living is a response to his gift.” (pg. 226.)

First, one cannot merely redefine religion as legalism and expect the rest of the English speaking world to just go along with you.  Legalism is a separate problem that is contained within religion.  And, there are also religions with virtually no rules or obligations whatsoever.  Second, any reasonable Christian ought to reject the implications within this sort of denial.  Denying that Christianity is a religion is an attempt to free oneself from a whole host of traditions, customs, liturgy and conventions without engaging with the question of why specific ones are or are not valuable.  Doing such a thing is intellectually lazy at best. Insisting that Christianity is a relationship instead of a religion looks very much like an attempt to free oneself from religious critical thinking and application.  It’s a sort of negation of theology.  There is no theology logically necessitated from a mere relationship.  That Christianity entails, among many other things, a relationship with God is deeply and wonderfully true.  But you are impoverishing yourself if you protest that that is all Christianity is.

One year before he was murdered by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell:

"Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the 'religious a priori' of mankind. 'Christianity' has always been a form - perhaps the true form - of 'religion.' But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless - and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any 'religious' reaction?) - what does that mean for 'Christianity'? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our 'Christianity,' and that there remain only a few 'last survivors of the age of chivalry,' ... The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God - without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on?"

By his insistence that Christianity is not a religion, Groeschel is demonstrating an ignorance of the questions that Bonhoeffer asked in 1944.  It could be that the fundamental idea that man is a priori religious by nature, that we are bestowed with a collection of metaphysical presuppositions and that the historical foundation of Christianity are all things that we trash only at our peril.  We live in a modern society that looks down on religion.  To speak about religion as they do makes it very easy for them to assume that you are meaning the same thing that they mean.  Pastor Kevin DeYoung, co-author of the book, Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, addressed the idea after Bethke uploaded his video:

“... Whether this argument is fair depends on your definition of religion. Bethke sees religion as a man made attempt to earn God’s favor. Religion equals self-righteousness, moral preening, and hypocrisy. Religion is all law and no gospel. If that’s religion, then Jesus is certainly against it. But that’s not what religion is. We can say that’s what is has become for some people or what we understand it to be. But words still matter and we shouldn’t just define them however we want. ‘Jesus hates religion’ communicates something that ‘Jesus hates self-righteousness’ doesn’t. To say that Jesus hates pride and hypocrisy is old news. To say he hates religion—now, that has a kick to it. People hear ‘religion’ and think of rules, rituals, dogma, pastors, priests, institutions. People love Oprah and the Shack and ‘spiritual, not religious’ bumper stickers because the mood of our country is one that wants God without the strictures that come with traditional Christianity. We love the Jesus that hates religion.

The only problem is, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. He went to services at the synagogue. He observed Jewish holy days. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He founded the church (Matt. 16:18). He established church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal (Matt. 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion ... Unless we define the word to suit our purposes, there is simply no biblical grounds for saying Jesus hated religion ...”

Groeschel inconsistently quotes James 1:27 at the beginning of his conclusion, but he shows no sense of any historical literacy when it comes to his dismissal of religion earlier in the book.  It matters not to Groeschel that thinkers who actually bother to practically apply their Christian beliefs to culture have spoken English and used words precisely as they are defined in the dictionary.

In his 1951 book, God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote (pgs. 28-29):

“... a utilitarian conception of Christianity, coupled with this brand of self-effacement and steadfast refusal to proclaim Christianity as the true religion (which is what all genuine Christian leaders proclaim it to be, thus committing themselves logically to the proposition that other religions are untrue) is a sample of the adulteration of religion to the point that it becomes nothing more than the basis for ‘my most favorite way of living.’  The instincts are fine, and a good life is inevitable for such persons, but so long as what they profess can be subscribed to wholeheartedly by an atheist, we have not, really, got religion at all.”

In his 1952 book, Crowd Culture, Bernard Iddings Bell wrote (pg. 48):

“A nation which does not give knowledge of religion to its children and encourage their commitment to religion in some form is in grave moral danger.  Its children, and later its adults, find no sanctions for ethical behavior except habit and expediency, and these are weak reeds on which to lean.”

In his 1969 book, Enemies of the Permanent Things, Russell Kirk wrote (pg. 21): 

“The little knots of Stoics, isolated from the Roman masses, could retard the decay of their sprawling society; but they could not renew the vitality of their social order: and it was only in the hour of that order’s destruction that inner order in soul and personality was restored by Christian faith - or by that religion which has existed since the beginning of the world, but which now takes the name of Christianity.”

In his 1998 book, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, Roger Scruton wrote (pgs. 5 and 18): 

“The core of common culture is religion ... In no genuinely religious epoch is the high culture separate from the religious rite.  Religious art, religious music and religious literature form the central strand of high culture in all societies where a common religious culture holds sway.  Moreover, when art and religion begin to diverge - as they have done in Europe since the Renaissance - it is usually because religion is in turmoil or declining.  When art and religion are healthy, they are also inseparable.”

Either all these thinkers are dangerously wrong (along with T.S. Eliot's Religion Without Humanism and G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy), or Groeschel is arbitrarily, cheaply and loosely using the English language in a way different from the English speaking theological world.  Such is yet another habit of discourse that discourages the taking of his ideas seriously.  Of course, it is finally also possible that Groeschel is merely parroting from Timothy Keller's now trendy Gospel in Life Sermon Series.  I respect Dr. Keller highly, but we will presently explore the problems with Keller's focus on the so-called psychological needs of the self - acceptance, self-image, self-view, identity, self-worth, happiness, security, significance, etc.

Pop Psychology + Jesus = ???

Up until just now, I could acknowledge a complaint against this book review on the grounds that I have merely painfully dredged over the vacuous and empty-headed nature of the teaching in the book.  If vacancy of thought were my only reason for disliking Soul Detox, then I could quite happily conclude this review at this moment - or even, better yet, not have written it to begin with.  I should have known better, and besides, what harm really is there in the natural shallowness that permeates the usual Christian best-seller?

But vacuity is not the most serious problem with Soul Detox.  Instead, this book is infused with falsehood.  While it may have been nice to spare the reader the affliction of going over the following excerpts from Craig Groeschel's latest book, I strongly believe that what he is teaching contradicts Christianity and will harmfully diminish the lives of anyone who takes it seriously.  Whatever may be said for the value of the presuppositions of respectable psychology, pop psychology is a lie.  And pop psychology is precisely what Groeschel is teaching his church.  In a fallen world, many of us struggle with temptations, addictions, sins, suffering and loss.  The Christian faith offers answers for us, often not easy answers, often not as comprehensive answers as we would like, but historically found to be true by a long line of mortal men and women.  Craig Groeschel also offers answers, often easy, often simplistic, but, I believe, inherently destructive and pernicious.

Groeschel writes:

“All the while your negative thoughts are silently poisoning your soul, pour lies into your spiritual water supply.” (pg. 17.) “Wouldn’t you like to come clean?  To feel your Father’s love wash over you like the cool, crystal waters of a spring-fed stream?  To leave the smoke-filled room where you’ve been hiding and come into his life-giving light?  To breath in fresh spiritual air?  It’s not too late.” (pg. 19.) “Sadly, so many of us refuse to push through the clutter and clamor of negative thinking and false beliefs that can bombard us.  ‘I’m no good.  I’ll always fail.  I’ll never amount to anything ... No one really cares about me ... It seems like I mess up everything I do ... My life stinks ... I’ll never get a break.  There’s no way to change the way I am.’  Any of these thoughts can be deadly, and cumulatively they can imprison us in a hellish well of toxic waste.”  (pg. 39.)  “I’ve identified four specific kinds of toxic waste that can poison our minds: (1) pessimism ... (2) anxiety ... (3) bitterness ... (4) criticism ...”  (pg. 42.) “Be brutally honest.  Do you battle with negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or life in general?  Are you consumed with fearful, worrisome thoughts, putting your faith in bad things happening rather than good? ... If you answered yes to one or more of the previous questions, your life is being infected with toxic thoughts.” (pgs. 46-47.) “You are not a victim of your thoughts.  You have the power through Christ ...” (pg. 51.) “If you’re struggling to trust God in some area of your life, I believe you must first identify what you’re afraid of ... Until you do, it will continue to be that elephant in the room that huge dark cloud hovering over you that you’re not willing to talk about.  So do some name calling.  Check the label and see the brand of fear you’re wearing.” (pg. 152.)

These are, quite frankly, the words of a spiritualized snake-oil-salesman.  In Groeschel’s version of the world, negative thoughts are to blame for our moral failures, failure to follow the alleged steps of fear identification lie at the root of our sins.  The solutions that he promises are admittedly vapid, for example: “Any time your mind drifts toward dangerous thoughts, stop.  Grab those runaway thoughts.”  Yes, indeed, grab those pesky things.  GRAB them.  “Do whatever it takes to get the trash out of your mind.” (pg. 50.)  The methods that he purports to explain are vapid.  He ludicrously suggests: “Do you struggle with sinful anger?  Get mad at it!  Attack it with righteous rage.” (pgs. 139-140.)  The theological teachings that he indulges in are, in an avowedly Christian book, are fabricated and fraudulent.

In churches across the country today, there is currently a populist version of a false gospel.

It goes like this:

Human beings have personalities and egos full of a large collection of psychological needs.  This idea derives from atheist philosopher and psychologist, Abraham Maslow, who was known for teaching that Christianity “sold human nature short.”  In his published 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Maslow developed what he described as the “hierarchy of needs” which he argued motivated all human behavior.  Higher up this pyramid of “needs” include, among others, acceptance, significance, self-esteem and self-actualization.  Maslow expounded upon these ideas in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality.  His ideas were later developed further by Carl Rogers in the 1961 book, On Becoming a Person.  Rogers taught that each person is basically good and that our behavior is motivated by our inclinations for self-fulfillment and self-actualization.  In all of this thinking, there is no room for the Christian idea of sin.  The idea of this hierarchy of psychological needs is also to be distinguished from Christianity’s teaching about both the good and evil desires of man.

In order for you to reach your “self-actualization”, you NEED to find satisfaction for this large collection of self needs - acceptance, significance, security, self-worth, happiness, identity and ultimately self-esteem.

The modern populist Christian approach to this theory is to blindly accept it, and then merely to teach that we can’t satisfactorily meet these needs if we look to satisfy them by things in the “world” or if we look to satisfy them by things in religion.  Where can your psychological needs be satisfied?  If you’ve ever been to Sunday School as a child, you will know that the answer is Jesus.

Groeschel illustrates this sort of teaching nicely:

“Think about it.  Money and things make three major promises that they cannot keep: the promises of happiness, significance, and security.” (pg. 167.) “While money promises happiness, true happiness, peace, and joy can be found only in God through Christ.  The same is true with significance.  Money promises significance, but it doesn’t deliver.  Only God does.  Again, money says if you have enough you’ll be secure.  But you just need someone you love to get in an accident or have a life-threatening disease to realize all the money in the world can’t buy away those troubles.  Only God can make you truly secure.” (pg. 170.) “With few exceptions, if you’re in debt, chances are you’ve swallowed the poisonous pill, believing more would make you happy, significant, or secure.  Own it.  Don’t excuse it.” (pg. 171.)  “We will never discover lasting happiness, significance, and security in the temporary things of this world because we weren’t made to live a temporary life.”  (pg. 176.)

Telling a story about how he and his wife used to worry about cleaning their house before guests came over, Groeschel asks the reader, “Why do you think we did this?”  Answer: “Because our identity was wrapped up in something besides Christ. We believed a toxic lie.” (pg. 172.) “When we became more secure with who we were in Christ, we didn’t need to impress others with our image but could serve them with our love.  When we changed what we believed (valuing people over things), our beliefs changed how we behaved.” (pg. 174.)  “The truth is that happiness, significance, and security are found in Christ alone.” (pg. 174.)

The problem is that the very idea that we have psychological needs to begin with originates from nonBiblical philosophy that denies the fundamental Christian teaching of body and spirit.  From the very beginning of Christianity, denial of self and focus on that which is other than self has been fundamental.  In order to teach against the denial of self, Abraham Maslow had to deny the sin nature.  In order to deny this, Maslow had to treat things in the world as objects - as means to the ends of meeting our psychological needs.  The inevitable logical result is an obsessive focus on the self, even when one is directed to the Gospel of Christ as the means to use in order to sate the self.  In the Christian pop psychology world, Jesus is the means that you can use to satisfy your own ends (psychological needs).

To the Christian, complete and utter self-actualization in this world will have evil consequences.  To work for these goals is death.  To begin by looking to meet first find satisfaction for these needs is theologically upside down.  (See Matthew 6:25-34.)  Carl Rogers taught that self-experience is our most reliable tool to accomplish the becoming of a whole person.  Christianity teaches that, because of our sin nature, our own self-experience is an unreliable judge of what is right or good.  Instead, we have been given other things - the moral law, Scripture, the Holy Spirit, the Church community of believers, the literary theological history of the Church, civilized social order, etc. - from which we can form more reliable standards.  “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation - but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.  For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”  (Romans 8:12-13.)

If you agree that you have these psychological needs, and then if you agree that you need to fulfill these psychological needs, then you are going to focus on what best can be used to fulfill yourself to a whole person.  You are going to become needy and self-focused.  Christianity teaches the direct opposite.  Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?  Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”  (Matthew 16:24-26; see also Luke 9:23-25.)

The kind of teaching that leads a person to believe that the Christian gospel is finding one’s acceptance, security, significance, identity, value, self-worth and self-esteem in Jesus has a further consequence.

Sin suddenly becomes merely a technical problem of having the wrong beliefs - of being mistaken about where one correctly satisfies all of one’s psychological needs.

If you believe that you can find acceptance in the world through money, then that’s why you do bad things - that’s why your life isn’t working like you want it to.  Fix that belief and find your acceptance in Jesus, and you’ve just fixed what was allegedly causing you to sin.  Groeschel writes: “The root of most sins we commit outwardly is the false beliefs we embrace inwardly ... If you think negative and toxic thoughts, you’ll become a negative and sick person.  Your soul will stagnate and wither.  If you think God’s truth in your thoughts, you’ll become like Christ.  Your soul will flow with living water and flourish.” (pg. 40.)  What he says about this would be comical if there were not genuinely hurting people out there listening to him.  Groeschel is teaching that the causes of our sins are false beliefs we embrace inwardly.  The solution is like magic: “I’m going to offer something often overlooked that should come before we try to change our behavior.  Remember our first problem is a belief problem.  Belief overflows to behavior.  First we need to change what we believe.  When we truly change what we believe, we’ll gladly change how we behave.” (pg. 172.)

In Groeschel's thinking, it isn’t as if one would believe something for any objective reason for believing in it.  If your life is not going as you’d like it to, then according to Groeschel, you’ve just got a belief problem.  That’s why you change what you believe, because that is how you make your life and your behavior better.

“Maybe in your self-talk, you tell yourself, ‘I don’t have what it takes.  No matter how hard I try, I’ll never get ahead.  No matter what I do, I always get the short end of the stick.  My life is always going to stink.”  (pg. 42.)  “Self-talk is the term used to describe the words you say to yourself or about yourself that others rarely hear.” (pg. 64.)  “I’m convinced that many people are limiting their futures with toxic self-talk.  For example, you might find yourself thinking things like this: ‘I’m so exhausted.  I don’t think I can survive this week ...’  I encourage you to constantly speak life-giving words to yourself and to your circumstances.  Jesus said, ‘If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them’ (Mark 11:23).  Notice how Jesus emphasizes the power of what we say, in this case, to a mountain.  One pastor I know used to always say, ‘Don’t talk about your mountain.  Talk to it.’” (pg. 65.)

That was not what Christ was saying about the mountain and the mustard seed, but nevertheless, how, according to Groeschel, do you believe something?  Easy.  Just repeat the new belief to yourself until you believe that it’s true.

“To really heal from the materialistic toxins, I encourage you to say the truth to yourself over and over again.
Money and things will never fulfill me.
Money and things will never fulfill me.
Money and things will NEVER fulfill me.
Say it over and over and over and over again, until you believe it.  And when you do believe it, you’ll begin putting it into practice.  Your behavior will change.”
(pg. 175.)

Question: does the repetition of a statement, in order to believe it, an idea that derives from Christianity?  The answer, which is rather obvious, is no.  Regardless of Matthew 6:7, and regardless of the majority of atheists who could tell you that materialism is not fulfilling, this is Pop Psychology 101.  It’s an idea that comes from psychological case studies that show people will uncritically accept almost anything if they repeat it to themselves over and over again.  (See “Dissociation of processes in belief: Source recollection, statement familiarity, and the illusion of truth,” by Ian M. Begg, Ann Anas & Suzanne Farinacci, Journal of Experimental Psychology.  Vol. 121, No. 4 (1992), pp. 446-458.)  Thus, we have popular “Christian” teachers like David J. Abbot who teach things like: “Repetition: Repetition can write any idea in my mind with eternally indelible ink.  No other programming tool has as much power to imprint positive thoughts into my mind.”

If we don’t pause to think about this, we could dismiss it as harmless.  Repetition is, after all, used for memorization in school.  What’s wrong with repeating and memorizing little positive sayings, like, for instance, “Money and things will never fulfill me”?  What’s wrong are the assumptions behind the idea that you will finally believe something if you just repeat it to yourself enough.  It is a matter of epistemology, and Christianity has a very strong and fundamental anti-nominalist position staked out in the epistemological world.  There are objective, rather than merely subjective, reasons for believing things to be true.  To think that you can trick your own mind into a set of beliefs by something like positive self-talk is to veer into nominalist territory.  Nominalism, which holds that it is our own language that shapes our reality, was considered a heresy by the early Christian church.  If we start believing that our beliefs can be molded by how we talk (and by how we talk to our own selves), then we end up obsessed with self-mastery like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

In all his encouraging of his congregation to engage in this behavior, Groeschel is either completely ignorant of or deliberately ignoring the assumptions upon which this type of behavior is based.  Psychological needs do not define the nature of man.  Some of the greatest achievements in the history of Christendom were accomplished by both Saints and by regular men & women who did not think positively about themselves, let alone did they need to happily feel accepted or secure or significant.  Basing Christianity upon the ideas of atheists like Abraham Maslow is destructive.  The end result can only be self-delusion.

In this highly provocative and intelligent book, No Place for Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, theologian David F. Wells wrote about the highly influential problems of Carl Gustav Jung:

Jung “recounted how he had to struggle with the fate of his father, a pastor, whose Christian faith collided so painfully with the modern world that he had, several times, to be placed in the lunatic asylum.  It was a fate the younger Jung earnestly wished to escape, and in a dream one day he found the way.  The solution was to look for God within the self, where sufficient adaptations to the modern world would already have taken place.  Once he had found his “subterranean God,” he also had found the way, he tells us, to reject the orthodox “Jesus.”  The outer allegiance was incompatible with the inner devotion ... So when Jung made his discovery, he found something that has in fact become characteristic of the whole modern period.  It was for him a discovery so startling that he identified it was the first instance of personal revelation.  The truth of the matter, quite obviously, was a little different from that.  But what Jung discovered then, evangelicals in droves are apparently discovering now for themselves, with or without the drama of a supposed personal revelation.  The difference is that Jung in his clear-eyed way opposed his “subterranean God” to “Jesus,” whereas many evangelicals are now naively identifying them.  Jesus is the “subterranean God”; his contours and attributes are defined by the inner experience of his breathless new followers.” (pgs. 154-156)

Groeschel teaches that the root of our sins are false beliefs.  In order to fix our sin problems, we then just have to fix our belief problems.  Positive self-talk can fix our belief problems.  We also just need to remember that our significance, security, acceptance, self-image, and self-worth can all be found in Jesus instead of in religion or in the world.  Meet these psychological needs, and the sin problem will be fixed as well ... But this is NOT Christianity.  Even when Timothy Keller teaches on this, he doesn't engage with the atheistic presuppositions behind the idea of the psychological needs.

Truthfully, some of these “needs,” well, they can be met at the temporal level.  The world has things that can legitimately satisfy acceptance, security, purpose, value, significance or identity at the temporal level.  Money, for some people, gives them security for the rest of their lives.  Humanitarian aid work, for some people, gives them purpose for the rest of their lives.  Marriage, for some people, gives them all the value they are ever going to need here in their lives on earth.

And honestly, if I find my eternal significance in Jesus and then sit back without finding anything at the temporal level.  Well, then I’ve failed.  I am temporally insignificant, and while my eternal security is in Jesus, while I can rest comfortable that I get to go to heaven when I die, I can still be living a useless human life.  I can only shudder to imagine what the real Christ would have to say about this self-referential Christianized nominalistic solipsism.

On Advocating Separatism From Culture

But we still haven't touched upon another of the most basic of Pastor Groeschel's teachings in this book.  Not only is he hip enough to deny that Christianity is a religion, not only is he culturally relevant enough to embrace the language and assumptions of pop psychology, but he also manages to combine all this with downright old-fashioned cultural separatism.  In spite of how many times it has been invalidated by the best of Christian thought and teaching, there still remains a malignant and unfortunate habit of thinking in the church that views “the” culture as the enemy.

In one sense it is apocalyptic in nature, assuming that “culture” is going to hell and therefore insisting, often for no other reason than comfort, upon our separation from it.  In another sense it is manipulative in nature, used as a tool by the Christian demagogue to beguile his congregation into reactionary behavior and rule-following, both of which cast them in a vulnerable and ignorant position.

First, Groeschel makes sure to inform his readers that the supposed pernicious influences of “the” culture are not something that just any reasonable observer would happen to notice.

“You’ve probably heard that if you put a frog in a kettle of water and heat the water slowly to a boil, the frog will adjust to the warming water and won’t even realize that it’s boiling to death ... In our culture, the water temperature increases daily.  Without realizing it, we slowly become acclimated to a toxic environment full of poisonous influences.  As the water temperature rises, we keep pretending we’re soaking in a hot tub having the time of our lives, never dreaming that we’re scalding our souls.” (pg. 13.)

But this isn’t enough.  Add to this idea that Christians are in immediate danger of being culturally boiled to death while having the time of their lives an appropriate dose of fear and paranoia.  This can best be accomplished by reminding your readers how the average member of Church apparently worries about his or her children:

“You know you shouldn’t worry, but it’s hard not to get anxious when you consider the world today.  ‘What if my children get mixed up with the wrong crowd?  I hope they aren’t drinking, having sex, or doing drugs.  There are so many bad influences.  I can’t sleep at night thinking about all the dangers facing my children.’  I struggle with this particular toxic thought category as much as anyone.”  (pg. 44.)

Although, of course, worrying, in Groeschel’s view, is also toxic.  After all, worrying threatens the progress of one’s spiritual self-actualization.  So he later condemns worrying as not believing in God:

“Or if you worry that something bad might happen to your children, you’re essentially telling God, ‘I don’t really believe you’re good enough. I don’t believe that your plan and your purposes will come through for my children.  So for my part, I’m going to contribute by worrying’ ... I believe we have to face our greatest fears in order to reach our greatest potential.  And the only way to do this is to allow God to lead you.” (pg. 148.)

The problem is that Pastor Groeschel also demonstrates himself to be an infant in his knowledge of culture.  For instance, if there was ever a cliched Christian subculture sort of thinking about Hollywood films, I’d say that Groeschel manages to exhibit it precisely.  “Recently,” he writes, “when I asked a friend for recommendations of a good movie to rent, he responded enthusiastically, ‘Have you seen The Hangover?  It may be the funniest movie I’ve ever seen!' Excited about a potentially great comedy, I asked a couple of my staff members about the movie.  They too had seen it and said it was a riot and a must-see ...”  In 2009, when The Hangover was released, it was madly advertised.  The number of commercials, trailers, reviews and news coverage it received reached epic proportions of acclamation and saturation.  And yet, all one had to do was to see one single TV spot for the film, and one would have immediately deduced what sort of tired juvenile repetitive borrowed-joke ridden slog of a film that it was.  Groeschel was somehow ignorant of this.  But he knew exactly where to look in order to judge it’s true worth: “According to, this comedy has more than it’s fair share of non-family-friendly scenes, intense language, and sexual situations.  The rough spots include ninety-one variations of the F-bomb (apparently it can function as noun, verb, adjective - and maybe even a conjunction for all I know), forty-one excretory words, fourteen references to a person’s behind, thirteen ‘hells,’ and nine slang terms for male anatomy.  To top it call off, this hilarious movie has thirty one versions of taking God’s name in vain.  Not exactly the Baskin-Robbins ‘thirty-onederful’ flavors I was looking for.” (pg. 178.)  Regardless of what he was looking for comedy about a bachelor party in Las Vegas, he does make sure to quickly reassure that the reader that he is no “teetotaling separatist who watches only Veggie Tales” either.

I would venture to claim that this is currently a problem in the church.  It is currently popular for the Christian to judge the worth of something, like a film, by the exact quantity of curse words or sexual content or “worldly” content contained in it.  This approach ignores questions of quality in art.  It ignores what the idea of entertainment means.  It ignores aesthetics.  And, it reduces taste to a nice set of legalistic and moralistic blinders.  There are far deeper theological objections, if one wanted to make them, against wasting one’s time with a film about the inane bachelor party shenanigans of a film like The Hangover, even if it hadn’t contained one single cuss-word.  There are works of art with more than double the number of f-words that, if the church actually watched them, could produce and galvanize works and reforms in the church’s local community with the purpose of changing lives.  (For example, take a couple of the best episodes from David Simon’s HBO’s The Wire).

But these are nuances that hold little interest for the pastor interested in promoting a little Christian subculture that is cut off from the rest of the world.  Groeschel continues his argument like this: “You might be like a lot of people who say, ‘Profanity, violence, and sex in the movies don’t really bother me.  If it doesn’t bother me, it must not be that big of a deal.’  Remember, I used to think this way too.”  Sure, whether something bothers you ought not to be the test for its moral value.  There are, after all, a whole number of morally good things that ought to bother us.  However, it reduces practical theological thinking to merely assume that our Creator is displeased by the cuss-word.  “If you’re a Christian, though, wouldn’t you agree that there has to be a boundary somewhere?”  Any intelligent nonbeliever would agree with this too.  “A way to discern what pleases God and moves us closer to him instead of farther away?”  Let’s grant that one.  “And can we trust our own sensibilities to know what’s truly best for us?”  If you get really excited “about a potentially great comedy” when your friend recommends The Hangover, then the answer is no.  If you read T.S. Eliot on sensibility, then you would understand that the goal is to cultivate a sensibility to the point where you could answer in the affirmative.  “Can you really endure an onslaught of F-bombs in a movie and not get wounded?” (pg. 179.)  Speaking as a military man, yes you can.

After making the above argument, Groeschel still seemed unsatisfied somehow.  So he tries next to illustrate it in a way that would be easier to understand.

“Consider, for example, if I dropped ninety-one F-bombs in my sermon this Sunday; do you think that no one in my church would care?  Chances are good that I’d stir up a bit of controversy to say the least.  So if you agree that ninety-one is too many F-words for a Sunday sermon, then how about fifty?  Or twenty-three?  What’s the magic number?  Most people in my church would say that even one F-bomb would be too many, much less taking God’s name in vain.  Yet the majority of them paid good money to be entertained by some form of media containing the same language or much worse within the past thirty days.” (pgs. 179-180.)

At a rudimentary level of theological thought on the subject of the cuss-word, or with a minimal reading of Bible characters’ use of their own cuss-words, one first determines that there is nothing morally wrong with the mere uttering of a word, in and of itself.  Quite the contrary, it is obviously the social setting and general rules of civility that determine the morality of the use of specific language.  Christians are instructed that one of the most basic rules of charity is not to willfully give offense.  No one, not even the most unchurched linguistic genius of a military drill sergeant (and I knew one who was specially gifted with an almost magical use of profanity), would think that using the f-word in church from the pulpit would be appropriate.  What exactly does Groeschel think his example is supposed to prove, other than the fact he may not understand the means by which rough language can be uncharitable?

Perhaps a much more metaphysically interesting question would be, not why so many people pay exorbitant amounts of money for entertainment that contains cuss-words, but why so many people pay exorbitant amounts of money for ... entertainment.  Now that, for those who try to think about the value of culture, would be a question far more promising.  Groeschel, lamentably, is beset by the cuss-word itself.  “So let’s wrestle with this subject,” he continues.  “If it’s not okay for me or you to say certain words or make particular jokes or references in church, then why would it be right for Christians to pay their hard-earned money to be entertained by something similar?” (pg. 180.)  Personally, I’m biased about popular entertainment.  But, from a purely objective perspective, the obvious answer to Groeschel's question is because church ought to be a respectful, sacred, contemplative and meditative setting in which it is inappropriate to do a long list of things that are normally perfectly appropriate in their own natural social settings.  “Each image and message we ingest may be a germ that will make us gravely ill,” he insists, “especially when combined with the many other sensory germs we’re taking in.” (pg. 180.)  That is, after all, one of the main problems with culture, those nasty sensory germs.

Reading Groeschel, I couldn’t help but pine for writers of another caliber, with even the slightest hint of theological thinking, who have addressed the same subject.  Take Professor Richard M. Weaver, for instance.  Again, as William F. Buckley would say, “once every great while one comes across a stretch of prose which, ever so calmly and resolutely, picks one up off the ground, and orients one over toward where the sun is really shining.”  After reading Groeschel, such is the prose of Weaver.  As far back as 1948, Weaver discussed the trend of dismissing Hollywood films for, as it were, uncouth content.  He writes:

“For what the public is reconciled to seeing censored are just the little breaches of decorum which fret bourgeois respectability and sense of security.  The truth is that these are so far removed from the heart of the problem that they could well be ignored.  The thing that needs to be censored is not the length of the kisses but the egotistic, selfish, and self-flaunting hero; not the relative proportion of undraped breast but the flippant, vacuous-minded, and also egotistic heroine.  Let us not worry about the jokes of dubious propriety; let us rather object to the whole story, with its complacent assertion of the virtues of materialist society ... for the beliefs which underlie virtually every movie story are precisely the ones which are hurrying us on to perdition.”  (pg. 101.)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Adam and Dog (2011)

This is the most creative and mesmerizing short film that I have seen in a long time.

It's a fascinating reflection on innocence and the grace of God. I don't know how exactly the film would feel to someone who has never closely known a dog. But, for those of us who have, this seems to encompass an appropriate tenderness.