The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Good News for Anxious Christians
By Phillip Cary (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI 2010)

I think Barnabas Ministry readers are going to love this book. It's been a while since I came across a book that I felt like was a "jackpot" of help for people dealing with bad church experiences, but this one will be worth the investment.

Phillip Cary is a professor of philosophy at Eastern University. His experiences with the strange theological beliefs of his students is what led to him writing this book. What strange beliefs could those be? Ouija boards? Superstitions? Some bizarre syncretism? No, just common, run-of-the-mill ideas found all over mainstreams protestantism (and also in abusive churches). Though widely accepted and practiced, they are illogical, unscriptural and damaging to the faith of those who hold them. These ideas are so widespread and common he calls them "the new evangelical theology." Here are the some of the chapter titles:

  • Why You Don't Have to Hear God's Voice in Your Heart
  • Why You Don't Have to Believe Your Intuitions are the Holy Spirit
  • Why You Don't Have to "Let God Take Control"
  • Why You Don't Have to "Find God's Will for Your Life"
  • (and my favorite...) Why "Applying It to Your Life" is boring
What is particularly exciting to me about this book is that he actually writes the things that myself and many others have thought when we've been exposed to these teachings, but we haven't always been able to put words to the things we are picking up on. And more than that-- he breaks down these misguided ideas and shows why they are inconsistent with Scripture, do not produce what they claim to produce but lead to damaged faith instead.

As soon as I saw Cary use words like "manipulation," "guilt" and "consumer-oriented spirituality" I knew he wasn't pulling any punches. He is not unkind in discussing these ideas, nor is he trying to hurt anybody's faith. But he is deadly serious about replacing these damaging, hurtful "beliefs" with Scriptural truths, no matter how popular or widely-held they might be.

Let's pick an example. Chapter 5 is entitled, "Why You Don't Have to Be Sure You Have the Right Motivations." Cary observes that what happens when people get overly concerned about their motivations is they become the center of their universe. It's no longer good enough to do some good or right thing; it must be done "the right way" and with "the right motivation." People end up in a labyrinth of trying to discern their own motivations, which is crazy enough. But there is more, and Cary writes:

... here we've come to the center of the new evangelical theology. For it's perverse to be motivated by the desire to be unselfish: it's one of the most self-centered motivations in the world. It's all about proving to ourselves what good Christians we are, which, if you think about it, is a pretty obnoxious motivation. All you have to do to see why is imagine yourself on the receiving end of what we nowadays call "charity." Have you noticed how people hate to receive charity? Now imagine discovering, on top of it all, that the people who are "reaching out" to give you their condescending charity are doing it in order to show what unselfish, loving Christians they are. Their obnoxious charity is really all about them (italics in original)! No wonder people on the receiving end hate it.

Do you see the trap here? There is nothing more self-centered than the project of being unselfish-- it's all about what kind of self you want to be. So people who are driven by the need to have the right motivations, such as unselfishness, are inevitably stuck with the wrong motivations-- selfish motivations that other people rightly find obnoxious. Being driven by a motivation to be unselfish traps you in a life that's all about yourself. It's perverse (italics in original), in the original sense of the word: twisted in the wrong direction. Here you are-- supposed to be unselfish and loving and all that-- and somehow your heart has been twisted around until it's all focused on yourself and your motivations. That's what happens when you put the new evangelical theology in practice.  (p. 84)

I've seen this sort of motivation arise when people are continually questioned about whether or not they are a "disciple" or a "true Christian." In fact, churches and leaders can become unsatisfied with whatever good is being done. Our of fear of becoming irrelevant or of losing control, they have to find something wrong with it to maintain some degree of guilt or "need" for the leader or the church program. But that's manipulation.

Christians are not supposed to be continually fending off such allegations from spiritual leaders or churches employing these techniques. And yet-- those teaching and promoting this theology are causing these perversions that rob Christians of faithful, fruitful lives. You no longer reach out to somebody so they might be saved, you reach out to them so you can be fruitful. You no longer encourage anybody who is struggling because of your concern for them, you do it because you're supposed to be "encouraging others." You no longer read the Bible to learn what God says, you do it so you can say you did it when somebody asks you if you did or not. It's all about you. It's beyond warped-- it is dangerous. They can ruin every good thing a Christian could do.

So, what's the solution? In each chapter, with each whacked-out component of this "new evangelical theology," Cary discusses the gospel with a view towards straightening things out. After all-- the book is entitled "Good News for Anxious Christians." And by that he means, "gospel for anxious Christians." The gospel can set Christians free from all of this nonsense.

So, in chapter 5 where he discusses motivations, he talks about putting on Christ and having him shape our hearts through exposure to the Word. Then we simply go about faithfully seeking to do what God has actually commanded-- loving others, reaching out, or whatever-- instead of wondering about what our motivations might be or if they are "good enough."

One great thing Cary also does here, and it might seem a bit frightening to those who have been influenced by this new evangelical theology, is to simply suggest we do what the Scriptures command. We need not get all wrapped up about our failures or the idea that we are "working our way to heaven." That's not the point. The point is that God has prepared good works for us to do (Eph 2:10), and our faithful duty as Christians is to do them as we have opportunity. That doesn't mean we can do everything (we can't) or we will never fail (we will), it just means we're free to do the good things God says to do without all of this selfish pre-occupation to defend ourselves against preacher or church accusations that have become so prominent today.

Another idea Cary takes aim on is the whole experience-driven, "consumer" approach to faith so popular these days. He sees this as the foundation of this new evangelical theology. Even if you've never been in an abusive church, chances are you've been exposed to this in your faith experience.

He discusses how people are being trained to crave the latest new thing the leaders and churches are offering and to "consume" it. But in so doing, they are discarding things previously consumed (and previously presented as the latest, important new thing). It sets up a never-ending cycle of consumption and obsolescence-- and dissatisfaction and eventually discouragement. Subtly (or perhaps not so subtly), they are told they are deficient if they are not craving or experiencing "the new thing." So off they go chasing the new thing, over and over and over. And in the meantime-- building lives of faith and character (things that are part of the Scriptural pattern of faith) are pretty much left by the wayside as churches create and then market things for Christians to consume to assuage that artificial guilt they created in the first place. And if anybody starts thinking that this is a no-win, never-ending sort of a game, well, that kind of thinking just isn't received very well-- "must have a bad heart!"

So what's the answer here? Simply, loving the truth. Loving the truth is a virtue, while loving the fad isn't. In fact, Christians are warned about getting away from the apostolic pattern and chasing new things (e.g. 1 Jn 2:24). Christians who seek to build their lives on the Rock are always looking for the truth and rejecting the sand (ref. Mt 7:24-27).

One passage Cary comes back to frequently is the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30). He says it's like Jesus was warning us to avoid this theology when he spoke this parable, as it directly contradicts many tenets of this new theology. In the story, the master gives talents and entrusts the servants with doing something with them. They are free to pursue any and all opportunities to make good investments; the master does not micro-manage them at all-- because he's away! Nor does he care about their motives. Cary observes that maybe not even all of the investments were successful, but these servants learned to succeed with what the master entrusted them, and two received commendation. The one who was focused on something besides just doing what the master said (in this case, criticizing the master) ended up risking nothing, doing nothing and earning nothing-- and he's the one who was spoken against.

The point is-- we're free to do what God tells us to do. We need not carry the burden of all of these vague, "new" theological ideas from churches and preachers trying to make themselves more relevant at the expense of the gospel.

Barnabas Ministry readers are going to love this book.

Copyright © 2010 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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