The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

For this month's column, I thought I would offer a few reflections on Andy Stanley's recent book, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. Here's a classic passage which represents in miniature an entire universe of erroneous thinking.
People are far more interested in what works than what's true. I hate to burst your bubble, but virtually nobody in your church is on a truth quest. Including your spouse. They are on happiness quests. As long as you are dishing out truth with no here's the difference it will make tacked on the end, you will be perceived as irrelevant by most of the people in your church, student ministry, or home Bible study. You may be spot-on theologically, like the teachers of the law in Jesus' day, but you will not be perceived as one who teaches with authority. Worse, nobody is going to want to listen to you.

Now, that may be discouraging. Especially the fact that you are one of the few who is actually on a quest for truth. And, yes, it is unfortunate that people aren't more like you in that regard. But that's the way it is. It's pointless to resist. If you try, you will end up with a little congregation of truth seekers who consider themselves superior to all the other Christians in the community. But at the end of the day, you won't make an iota of difference in this world. And your kids...more than likely your kids, are going to confuse your church with the church and once they are out of your house, they probably won't visit the church house. Then one day they will show up in a church like mine and want to get baptized again because they won't be sure the first one took. And I'll be happy to pastor your kids. But I would rather you face the reality of the world we live in and adjust your sails. Culture is like the wind. You can't stop it. You shouldn't spit in it. But, if like a good sailor you will adjust your sails, you can harness the winds of culture to take your audience where they need to go. If people are more interested in being happy, then play to that. Jesus did (Kindle 1216-1234).
To be sure, as grateful as I am to the Rev. Stanley for the offer to pastor my children and for providing me with fascinating insights into the philosophical convictions of my long-suffering wife, I cannot help but see this as a remarkably naïve piece of muddled thinking.

With so much promising material, where should one start the critique? Perhaps with the unintended irony of a man warning his readers about feeling superior while at the same time assuring them that he has better insight into the way their spouses and congregations think than they do? Or with the odd way in which he berates his audience for making the mistake of assuming that other people are just like them rather than realizing that they are actually all just like Andy Stanley? Sorry to - as you would put it - 'burst your bubble', Andy, but the people I know are not on a happiness quest. I suspect they are not that ambitious: they simply want to find a decent bottle of cognac so that they might temporarily dull the pain of existence with a little touch of old world class. At least, I have always assumed they are just like me.

One might also look at the travesty of scriptural teaching it contains. The problem of the teachers of the law, for example, was not that they were spot on; it was that they were completely wrong. That is why Jesus spent such a lot of time berating them for their errors of interpretation. And as to Jesus playing to people's expectations of happiness, one wonders why he made such 'play' of the havoc which following him would wreak on families, of the need to take up one's cross, and of the expectation of persecution to come. As far as I know, not even Peter Tatchell has yet tried to argue that first century Palestine was full of sexual fetishists who found their happiness by being regularly subjected to acute suffering brought on by religious commitment.

I will concede that Stanley is certainly right in his basic contention: people are not on a search for truth. The Apostle Paul articulated that well in Romans 1. Stanley is also correct that truth is irrelevant to people, or at least they think it is irrelevant to them. Compared to Paul, Stanley's statement on this issue is rather bland. Paul goes much further, declaring the truth, the message of the cross, to be intellectual foolishness to some and a moral offense to others. It is not, however, Stanley's blandness which is the real problem; it is the practical conclusion which he draws from this. For Paul, the offensiveness and irrelevance of the message of the cross demonstrate the fact that those who think in such ways are perishing. The problem is with them and with their 'cultures,' not with the cross. For Stanley, by way of contrast, it is the 'culture' which is to set the agenda and to which the church must thus conform or die.   

Stanley's pragmatism, in a manner analogous to the soft relativism of certain evangelical postmoderns, looks attractively plausible; yet this is only because it operates within the framework of the likely possibilities determined by the polite pieties and tasteful transgressions of modern middle America. Safe, in other words, because Stanley assumes middle America is pretty much like him and therefore unlikely to confront him or his church with anything too tasteless. After all, what's the worst that 'culture' might throw at them? Homosexuality? That is being rendered thoroughly respectable even as I write. Abortion? Out of sight, out of mind. Nice clean "clinics," a powerful rhetoric built on claims about rape, incest and victimhood, and a euphemistic vocabulary of "women's health," "terminations" and "planned parenthood" help make child killing just one more private and merciful medical procedure.

So far, so middle America. The final cause of personal felicity sanctifies all. But if Stanley had the imagination to set this pragmatism in Nazi Germany or in a country where female circumcision is de rigueur, some place where middle class American tastes and preferences do not apply, then the cost of such intellectual and moral laziness would immediately become apparent. If you cannot stop culture and should not spit in it, what happens when the culture tells you that happiness comes about by gassing Jews or lacerating young girls' genitalia?    That is somebody's culture. No point trying to resist it for that would risk irrelevance, empty pews and an isolationist Pharisaism. And we couldn't have that, could we?

Of course, one can already hear the pat responses of 'It could never happen here!' or 'But that stuff is obviously wrong!' Touching in its innocence and predictable in its complacency, such mewling would yet betray a shockingly shallow understanding of both human nature and history. No one in 1900 would have predicted that the most technologically and culturally advanced nation in Europe would elect a man like Hitler and be the centre of previously unimaginable genocide. Interesting what national military defeat, adverse economic conditions, and concerted anti-Semitic propaganda can do to a nation, is it not?

Still, let's bring it closer to home while staying on the contemporary social margins: what if a pair of twenty-something siblings or a parent and adult child decide that their happiness lies in a consensual incestuous relationship? Consensual incest is already being legally debated in the US; and if the history of sexual politics teaches us anything, it is that what is today considered an anti-social fetish is tomorrow not only a civil right but also protected by hate speech legislation. And let us not forget that a current professor of bioethics at Princeton University sees nothing wrong in principle with bestiality (already, incidentally, being euphemized as 'zoophilia') or infanticide; and argues for both on grounds which are consistent with cultural and legal premises established years ago. In the field of human ethical behavior, one should never say 'it' can never happen here, wherever you may be.

And that is ultimately the saddest aspect of the Andy Stanleys of this world. It is not their patronizing attitude to others. It is not their arrogant assumption that they represent the culture or that they have the right to tell the rest of us how we should think. It is not the sloppy way they bandy words like 'culture' and even 'happiness' around without ever offering a definition of what they think they mean. It is not their crass prioritization of raw numbers. It is not their complete lack of imagination regarding the moral possibilities of 'culture.' Rather, it is the fact that what they confidently present as radical insights are really nothing but lazy, insipid, prosaic, and predictable capitulations to the values of the spirit of the age. In short, they are simply dressing up their society's tastes as absolute truth. Unimaginative, respectable, lazy and lethal. The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, is it not?

Dr. Carl Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church.