Friday, May 04, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Debby Boone Theology

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

“It can’t be wrong, when it feels so right.”
— Debby Boone, You Light Up My Life (1977)

Immanuel Can: Okay, Tom. Remember that song?

Tom: I hated the song, but I was wildly infatuated with Debby. I think I even had her poster on the wall in the basement bedroom I shared with my younger brother. I could just barely slide a female pop star (completely and decorously attired, I hasten to add, in a beige dress that did up at the neck and went down to her ankles) past my parents because “She’s a Christian!” Of course, I was all of sixteen at the time. Sadly, nothing permanent came of that little obsession: Debby has since married a fellow believer and, unlike many celebrities, has stuck with it going on forty years now. Good on her.

IC: Uh … right.

The Spirit of the Age

Anyway, the song was a really torchy, saccharine anthem by a one-hit-wonder, the daughter of the famous Christian singer Pat Boone, as I recall. That line was the clincher: essentially, “I know it’s right for us to be together, because of how I feel when I have you in my life.” But that’s a funny combo, isn’t it? Feels good, therefore, morally good. Sensations justify ethics.

I would say that those sentiments, penned four decades ago, surely do not sum up the spirit of that age anywhere near so well as they sum up the spirit of our own. Have the churches remained immune to this overwhelming social trend, do you think?

Tom: Oh goodness, no. Are you mad? We’re absolutely immersed in feelz. We use them to excuse our own behavior and to dismiss the criticism of other Christians when it makes us embarrassed or exposes our errors and inadequacies. In fact, we even flip it around: not only can’t it be wrong when it feels so right, we argue that it can’t be right if it feels wrong.

So, yeah, you’re right on there.

IC: I’ve seen that happen. For example, to let someone win a prize and not give one to everybody else is “unfair” — and why? Because it will make those who didn’t get a prize feel bad. To object to any practice associated with a different culture is going to make people of that culture feel bad, so it must be “racist”. Or questioning the content of anything a speaker says or writes, even if your intent is just to mull it over and discuss its accuracy, is “negative” and even “unloving” in some people’s eyes. It’s not to be done. So there, bad feelings are taken as reliably indicative of moral badness.

Nothing More than Feelings

Tom: Exactly. But let’s go with those good feelings you mention. Now, there’s an argument to be made — and I think it probably even has a little bit of validity to it — that if you’re doing what God made you to do, it’s going to feel great. And it does. Real worship feels good. Seeing someone saved feels good. Using the spiritual gift God has given you feels good, and definitely seeing someone you love grow in Christ feels good. I will not argue with that.

IC: Well, yeah. Nobody says that feeling good isn’t a good thing, all else being equal. It’s certainly preferable to the alternative, in such cases.

Tom: However, there are lots of other things that make one feel terrific too. Being liked is one of them, especially if you’ve grown up in an environment in which you were rarely validated. Or avoiding a major conflict you didn’t feel up to; that’s definitely a “whew!” moment. But the relief you feel from dodging a bullet or the WHOOSH of your ego inflating when you are told you said just the right thing at the right time — these are not definitive indicators of anything. You might well be in the wrong camp entirely. Sometimes doing the right thing is costly, miserable and emotionally daunting.

In short, how something makes you feel is no reliable index of whether or not that thing itself is a genuinely spiritual exercise.

The Thyatiran Warm Fuzzies

IC: Right. The church at Corinth was having lots of good feelings about how they’d been able to accept incestuous relationships so gross that no unbeliever of the period would have accepted them. The Laodiceans were all puffed up over how self-sufficient they were getting. And Thyatira was so full of open-mindedness and warm fuzzies that they were happy to tolerate a perverted woman named Jezebel. Good feelings weren’t taking any of these churches to good places.

Tom: Precisely. Endorsing sin can feel pretty good too — in the short term at least, especially these days when we are constantly being told that the worst possible way to be is intolerant. If the choice is going along with what is currently popular and trendy, or instead being the lone voice crying, “Uh, wait, I’d rather not,” most people will happily go with the former.

I’ll Come to Your Emotional Rescue

And let’s talk about the attendant emotions, because that’s often the problem. You might take the right road biblically-speaking, but still feel terribly wrong about it. Feelings have been hurt, enemies have been made, opposition is queued up for the foreseeable future and the road has just gotten a whole lot more difficult. What’s to celebrate after that? You have to wonder if you’ve made the right move. Meanwhile, the guy who has compromised has just been validated.

IC: Oh, yeah, absolutely. You’ll sometimes find the majority validating the person who’s doing the actual bad, in fact. You’ll hear repeatedly that you are the one in the wrong — you’re insensitive, proud, unkind, impolite, or just that your tone is “unchristian”. And the few people who are paying attention to the facts may know you’re quite right; but all but the most principled will just stay out of it, because they don’t want the pack turning on them. Stand for the truth over the feelings, and people will put you on your own little desert island.

All Who Are In Asia

Tom: There was a time when even the apostle Paul said to Timothy, “All who are in Asia turned away from me.” I’m betting that was not something he viewed as a plus. And yet it was Paul who was in the right: the overwhelming numbers who turned away from him were cowards and turncoats, or at very best merely deceived.

IC: “Nevertheless, the Lord stood with me,” is how that ends. That’s sometimes the choice: to stand with those who call themselves “the people of God”, or to stand with the Lord. It ought not to be like that, but sometimes that’s how things turn — especially in days when the church itself is badly compromised and has lost its regard for truth, becoming preoccupied with its own feelings.

It’s important to remember what the Lord himself told us: “In that day, many will say to me, Lord, Lord …” There will be a lot of people who have professed the Name, but not been genuine. And the conclusion of that is “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity; for I never knew you.” (In the Greek, the word “knew” there really means “I never stood in any approving relationship to you”, not “I didn’t know you existed”.) I wonder what the Lord will say to those who followed their own feelings, and sacrificed his truth in exchange for an ‘in’ with polite society. Will they then say, “We felt so right, we couldn’t have been wrong”?

The Seven Churches Trajectory

Tom: I think it unlikely. I don’t know how you feel about viewing the letters to the seven churches in Revelation prophetically, but whether you look at them historically, prophetically or both, you see a progression throughout those letters of increasing loneliness among the people who really love the Lord. In the Ephesian letter, the Lord speaks to the whole church as a united group: “you”. Same in Smyrna and Pergamum. When you get to Thyatira, there is a “you” (the church generally), and then “the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching.” Again, in Sardis, the church is polarized, and the numbers on the Lord’s side are even smaller: “You have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments.” Philadelphia breaks the pattern, but you get the impression it’s a pretty small group to start with: “I know that you have but little power.” And finally in Laodicea, it’s “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” The Lord is down to individuals at that point.

IC: Yeah. “If anyone.” There’s a lot of doubt in that phrase. Not that the Lord doesn’t know, but it will be awfully hard to find even one. That’s sobering.

Tom: There are plenty of Bible teachers out there who make the case that we’re living in the Laodicean age now, or at least very close to it. The spirit of Laodicea is certainly around. And in that sort of environment, the Christian who expects to discover right or wrong on the basis of how a particular choice might make him feel is going to find himself out of luck. All the genuinely good, moral, righteous, God-pleasing choices will probably be painful to some degree. Increasingly, if we love the Lord, we are going to have to be less concerned about receiving approval from our fellow believers and more concerned about receiving it from Christ.

Truth or Consequences

IC: Well said. Being dedicated to truth is not going to “feel good” in this world. And it’s not going to make you popular with the masses. Sadly, it’s not even going to make you well-received in the churches, because today’s churches are mostly run on feelings too. And people will tell you you’re doing bad if you do anything that makes other people feel bad — and that without regard for the truth-value of whatever you say.

But the truth is precious. There really is no way to heaven apart from it. Our Saviour himself said, “I am the truth.” And those who choose feelings over it betray the truth.

Maybe for now, it seems to work better for them. But like the old TV game show used to say, “It’s truth or consequences.”

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