Good News for Anxious Christians pt 4

The church, when it’s not seduced by consumerist spirituality, is in the business of cultivating ordinary Christians.

This is perhaps my favorite quote in the book I’ve been reviewing, Good News for Anxious Christians. This is not, however, the focus of contemporary evangelicalism. Who wants to be ordinary? “Come join us—be ordinary!” is not something you’re going to find on many (or any) church signs or websites.

In the remaining 1/2 of the book, Cary addresses cultural elements which have found their way into evangelicalism, such as emphasizing our motivations rather than our actions, separating “head” from “heart,” and especially consumerism. In adopting a marketing approach to spirituality—which is based on creating a need to fit in, or even be special—the church has lost any sense of true spirituality (becoming “ordinary” Christians).

The point of consumerism is to make you feel like you’re missing something, so you keep coming back. This requires that you stop thinking, and respond emotionally to the message. As Cary writes,

The new evangelical theology, like all forms of consumerist religion, really does need to keep you from thinking too much. It requires you to be afraid of engaging in critical thought, so that you’re easily manipulated and easily pressured into wanting to feel what everyone else feels.

Cary includes a chapter on why practical sermons are so boring (as we all know they are). The need to be practical and “relevant” shifts the focus from the Gospel (what Christ has done for us) to what we can do for ourselves (or for the church).

The last couple of chapters are perhaps the most important in the book, as he explains how this shift from a focus on external truth to one of internal experience is a step away from orthodox Christianity, and which will lead to a post-Christian future.

In closing, he tells us why the gospel is simply good for us, and why it should be preached as often as possible.

As I mentioned at the outset of this series, Good News for Anxious Christians is a great companion to my book The Gospel Uncensored, as it deals with many of the same attitudes, however from a different perspective. If church makes you feel anxious in the least, I highly recommend reading both of these (mind first, of course…).

Good News for Anxious Christians pt 3

The first 4 chapters of Anxious Christians deals with what Cary calls “the core of what is distinctive about the new evangelical theology.” When Cary refers to “new evangelical theology,” he is referring to an approach to spirituality and thinking which would have been unheard of a generation or 2 ago.  He describes it so:

This is essentially a set of interconnected techniques or ritual practices for making God real in your life, establishing a relationship with God, and so on—as if that kind of thing really depended on you. The techniques all have the characteristic that they turn you away from external things like the word of God, Christ in the flesh, and the life of the church, in order to seek God in your heart, your life, and your experience. Underneath a lot of talk about being personal with God, it’s a spirituality that actually leaves you alone with yourself [italics mine].

Chapter 2 follows the theme of chapter 1, dealing with why you don’t have to believe your intuitions are the Holy Spirit. He again makes the point that “…the Holy Spirit does work in our hearts, even though our hearts and all the voices in them are our own.” Intuition is a skilled way of seeing, that develops as God works in our lives.

The danger is that when we feel like we must credit God with our innermost thoughts and feelings, we actually are short-changing what God is doing in our lives. We are left with no sense of personal growth, because anything good has to be solely God, not our being changed into the likeness of Christ.

Moving on, Cary then deals in Chapter 3 with the concept of “letting God take control.” This, again, is a way of short-changing what God is doing in us, and actually stunts our personal growth. Growth in anything involves an increase in responsibility, which people abdicate under the guise of being “spiritual.” The result is stunted spiritual growth. We don’t have to “give God control;” God is in control, and we must learn to accept this, and what God is doing in us, by faith.

Finally, in the 4th and last chapter in this section, Cary addresses the concept of “finding God’s will,” a major theme among evangelical Christians, especially those looking for a mate. He dispels the notion that there is such a thing as “the one” or that God really cares whether you have oatmeal or toast for breakfast. A part of maturing is making decisions.

God has already given us everything we need to live godly lives (2 Peter 1:3), and we need to believe that by faith. That doesn’t mean that we don’t ask God for wisdom, but that we trust that he gives it to us. Citing Hebrews 5:14, Cary writes, “For we already know the Lord’s will for our lives: he wants us to learn how to discern good from bad, including how to make good investments for his kingdom.

The new evangelical theology actually works against any kind of spiritual maturity, conning us into believing that we need to ignore what God is actually doing in our lives, abdicating any kind of real maturity in favor of a vacuous spirituality.

Good News for Anxious Christians, pt 2

On the first page of the preface of his book, Phillip Cary writes:

Some folks may find it odd when I say Christians need the gospel, but this is something I firmly believe. … It’s hearing the gospel of Christ and receiving him by faith, over and over again, that makes the real transformation in our lives. We become new people in Christ by faith alone, not by our good works or efforts or even our attempts to let God work in our lives.

This thought echoes my own, that we need to be constantly re-evangelizing each other, as well as that of Martin Luther, who wrote:

So this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough. If this doctrine is lost, then is also the whole knowledge of the truth, life and salvation lost. If this doctrine flourishes, then all good things flourish.

Crediting Luther, Cary then makes what to some would be a rather shocking statement, “…the good news of the gospel is that God has already decided to do something about our lives—whether we let him or not…

Cary’s point in this book is that the practical things we try to do to become more transformed don’t accomplish what we think they will, and actually damage our spirituality, making us anxious Christians.

Hearing God’s voice in our hearts

The first thing Cary tackles is the notion that we need to hear God’s voice in our heart, and that if we don’t, there’s something wrong with us. He maintains, in fact,  the voices in our heart are our own—influenced by God, perhaps, but still, they our simply our own voices—and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we start understanding that our own inner voice is good (although not perfect) and it’s okay to listen to ourselves, we will function more normally, maturely, and truly spiritually.

This is something Ken and I mention in our own book, concerning people’s religious addiction, noting that those who claim to hear God’s voice the most are often the people with the most messed-up lives.

While Cary doesn’t mention this, the whole concept of hearing God’s voice in our heart is not unlike that claimed by Mormons, and sometimes even serial killers. There is simply no objective way to determine the validity of this inner voice—unless we admit it is our own. We have already been given revelation in the person of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2) and the scriptures; what more do we want?

For those people who realize that the only voices they hear are their own, this can obviously cause anxiety, and sometimes “playing along” with the group in order to seem “normal.”

Bottom line

Cary is not saying that we are “on our own,” or that the Holy Spirit doesn’t speak to us or through us. What he is saying is that as truth comes into us, as the Holy Spirit works in us and we become transformed, our own inner voices will be more conformed as well. Our inner voice will sound more and more like the voice of God—presuming we are having the good news preached to us and we are paying attention to the revelation we have in the Scriptures.

This makes church essential—we can’t just listen to our inner voice, we have to hear the Scriptures preached and listen to each other, for “faith comes by hearing,” not by looking inward where we can imagine any of our thoughts are those of God. We truly need to be evangelizing each other, over and over again.

Good News for Anxious Christians

I am almost finished with Phillip Cary’s book, Good News for Anxious Christians—10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do. When my brother-in-law gave it to me at Christmas, he remarked that it seemed like a good companion to my book, and he was absolutely right. For example, on the first page of the preface, Cary writes:

Some folks may find it odd when I say Christians need the gospel, but this is something I firmly believe. I don’t think you just accept Christ once in life, and then move on to figure out how to make real changes in your life that transform you. It’s hearing the gospel of Christ and receiving him in faith, over and over again, that makes the real transformation in our lives. We become new people in Christ by faith alone, not by our good works or efforts or even our attempts to let God work in our lives.

Good stuff.

Cary teaches philosophy at Eastern University, where he has dealt with countless students plagued by various teachings prevalent in today’s evangelical church that are meant to provide practical ways to transform our lives, but as he says, “They’re ideas that promise practical transformation, but in real life they mainly have the effect of making people anxious, not to mention encouraging self-deception, undermining their sense of moral responsibility, and weakening their faith in Christ.” (Cary also has a few courses available at The Teaching Company, which I highly recommend.)

I think Cary’s background in philosophy—and especially the history of philosophy and religious thought—gives him a unique perspective from which to view the present. He  paints a very clear picture of the contemporary evangelical church, emphasizing first that it is a contemporary phenomenon—the thinking behind many of the ideas he discusses would have been completely foreign a couple of generations ago.

While he deals with ten specific “things you don’t have to do,” there are three key themes that appear. First is the trend toward an individualistic spirituality (something about which I’ve blogged about in the past). Next is the related theme of looking inside oneself to find God.

The third theme—which I found most interesting—is the consumerist aspect of the contemporary evangelical church. I’ve heard a lot of about “consumer Christians” over the years, but nothing with the depth that Cary presents. He describes the various characteristics of consumerism and shows how it perverts teaching and evangelism in the church, hiding the gospel and creating anxiety-ridden Christians.

It occurred to me as I was reading, that the consumerist approach to church is actually necessitated by the first 2 themes. If Christians turn individualist and self-centered, they no longer have a need for the church. Therefore, the pastors need to present their church as a commodity the consumer needs, in order to get them coming to church. More on this in a future post.

I already liked Cary from his Great Courses series, but really appreciated his thinking in this book.  I plan to write 2 or 3 follow up posts dealing with a few things in more detail, mainly for my own edification, but also to solicit some thoughts from others.