Friday, February 24, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Virtual Christianity

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

James Smith’s Los Angeles Review of Books has a piece up called “How to Find God (on YouTube)” about a gang of “apostles” and “prophets” we discussed in this space last year.

Tom: You may remember our conversation about Independent Network Christianity (or INC), the post-Pentecostal charismatic internet church movement from California. (By “post-Pentecostal”, I mean that they are signs-and-wonders focused, as you might expect, but have no connection to denominational Pentecostals like the Assemblies of God. They are total freelancers.)

How do you feel about autonomous “Christian” movements, IC? Are they suspicious by definition?

On Breakaway Movements

Immanuel Can: Every movement in Christianity’s history that aimed at reform, corporate repentance or obedience to a new, more accurate reading of doctrine has been labeled “rogue”, “misguided”, “anti-authority” or “heretical” by those invested the status quo. There’s nothing new about that.

Tom: I did notice a fair bit of nose-in-the-air attitude wafting off the article with respect to the issue of INC not being wedded to the traditional Pentecostal denominations.

IC: Some of these breakaway movements certainly deserved that kind of labeling; but in other cases, it was mere slander. Which is the case has to be decided on the particulars of what the new movement is advocating, not on their mere “newness” or the mere fact of them having a difference from the status quo. But I know you believe that too, Tom.

Tom: I do. There was a time when eleven apostles were their own breakaway movement, and we are unwise to forget that. And where would we be if there were nothing but Catholics and the Orthodox out there? Probably dispensing crackers …

IC: Right. So I want to be clear that I — and, I think, you too — have no objection or even hesitation about something that’s new. In fact, I long to see a new, more earnest, more obedient, more passionate and more practical kind of Christianity burst forth. God bless it; I’m all for that. But the real question is, is that what INC Christianity actually is?

Territorial Demonic Forces

Tom: Well, there may be passion and earnestness there — I can’t say — and the leadership certainly appears pragmatic. I wonder about any movement characterized by, as Smith puts it, “a particular fixation on spiritual power, and a concern with the demonic, including the innovative notion of ‘territorial’ demonic forces.”

Territorial demonic forces don’t sound “innovative” to me at all, but that may just be Smith’s unfamiliarity with the concept. It sounds to me like INC might be riffing on the book of Daniel. But the thing about demons is that we don’t know anything at all for sure about how they organize or what they’re up to in the world beyond what has been revealed to us in scripture, and that information is scant, to say the least. To get fixated on such things sounds unhealthy to me.

IC: For sure. That’s certainly not the preoccupation of the word of God, as a general rule.

Seven Peaks of Culture

Have you heard about the “Seven Peaks of Culture” idea that the INC people are pushing?

Tom: Nope, that’s a new one on me. What’s that about?

IC: The INCers claim that Christians have to take over seven areas of public life — arts and entertainment, business, education, family, government, religion and the media. These they call the “mountains” or “pillars” of any culture. They claim that back in the seventies, some of their early “apostles” — they name Bill Bright and Loren Cunningham and add in Francis Schaeffer for good measure — were given a direct revelation from God that Christians have a divine mandate to bring God back into the culture by “becoming a change agent”, and taking over (or, as they say, “reclaiming dominion over”) these seven aspects of cultural life. Thus, we will “advance the kingdom of God”, they claim.

Interestingly, above all, they name business as the controlling area of all the others. They say control of wealth is how you control the other “mountains”.

(“One ring to bind them?”) ;)

Tom: They would be postmillennial then? I’ve read some Reformed people saying similar things about reclaiming the culture. I wasn’t able to get much about INC theology from Smith’s article. Well, I would say good luck with that, but I don’t think it’s a likely outcome. Maybe their “apostles” need to get back to the Old Testament and the book of Revelation if they want to improve their prophetic accuracy. I don’t think the world is headed in the direction they think it is.

Saving the Nation

IC: Well, they think that they’re going to change that … if they can convince enough Christians to join them. They think that the Kingdom will be brought about by saving nations. Not just individuals — nations. And to save a nation, they say, you’ve got to control the thinking patterns of the whole national culture. Then they quote verses like Matthew 28:19, and say, “See? God tells us to make disciples of the nations.” So we’ve got to save nations through their culture, infusing the whole nation with Christian moral principles; and thus we will save democracy. They call it “The Mountains Mandate”.

Tom: Well, you can’t save a nation. That’s delusional. The only value in a nation is that it’s a bunch of individuals made in the image of God. It’s like God said to Jonah when he was giving him a lesson in compassion, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” The issue for God is the people and the cows, not Nineveh as an entity. Or Sodom. God would have spared a wicked city of thousands for the sake of ten righteous men.

American Enthusiasms

And what’s with the emphasis on democracy? Nothing God has ever established since the beginning of time has been democratic in nature.

IC: Their ambitions are all tied up with a few traditional American enthusiasms — democracy, technology, big business, and nationalism, in particular — which they seem to equate totally with God’s values. And above all, they associate the kingdom of God with strategic human effort and influence. There’s a danger there in overconfidence in the flesh, to be sure.

Tom: Do you think there anything at all of value in their package of distinctives?

IC: I’ve got to grant them a few points: They say that Christians have historically retreated from influence in places like government, education and the arts. That’s true. They emphasize that culture is a powerful source of false doctrine, and we ought to be concerned about it; I think that’s important (and very, very important when we are trying to raise children). They claim that entertainment has become debauched, public education has been given over to ungodly values, politics have become devoid of ethical values, religion is a pluralistic mess, and really, economics are driving all these things. Yes, absolutely. I can’t disagree with any of that.

But I think they’re still wrong about what God is asking us to do.

Gathering on YouTube

Tom: Okay, mission aside, what about mechanics? Smith says this about the way INC does business (I’m not being snide here; it is literally business for them):

“The nodes of INC Christianity form a web of online venues, YouTube channels, roaming conferences, and church-based ministry schools that draw an international audience seeking both spiritual transformation and the power to carry out such signs and wonders. INC Christianity does not have a headquarters and is not tied to a denomination. Instead, it is a network of content providers that are tied to talent.”

No buildings, no churches, just events and online portals. Saves a bunch of money, I suppose. But virtual Christianity? Is that what we’ve come to?

IC: I suppose. At least we could say it’s a sort of virtual, pseudo-churchy club — although it’s one with a definite hierarchy, and with non-virtual ambitions, and certainly, with non-virtual cash flowing through it.

Tom: I guess I’m more than a little suspicious of a church fellowship that doesn’t fellowship. It is not a new point to make, but the meaning of “church” in Greek is “assembly” or “gathering”. How are you assembling when your church life consists of downloading a course and/or going to a conference in your area once in a quarter?

Changing the World from the Foundations

IC: It’s not hard to see the appeal, though: get a “hot” experiential brand of Christianity, be convinced you’re going to change the world from the foundations to the top, and yet have no disciplines, commitments, required attendances, regular duties, and so on to ruin your fun. Who wouldn’t prefer that ... speaking only selfishly, of course.

Tom: Oh, I hear ya. Christianity without any actual Christians to disagree with? What could possibly go wrong?

IC: There’s a great irony here: INC Christianity prides itself on being counter-cultural, in that it proposes to take over the key elements of culture, and then to turn them to “Christian” uses. But in terms of its assumptions and methods of operating, it is completely in harmony with existing North American cultural prejudices, and really, operates in an entirely worldly way — nationalistically, in keeping with individualist and consumerist values, through human ingenuity and human economic strategies. It’s experiential, not disciplined or rational with the teaching of scripture. And its program for the future bears no resemblance to what God has indicated he wants or intends to do.

So in what sense is it really “Christian”? Surely only in the superficial. It waves the Christian flag, but charges under the banner of secular methods.

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