Friday, May 17, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Cult of Personality

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

Sunny Shell no longer follows John Piper or any of his ministries, and she certainly doesn’t endorse them to her friends. Why? Well, Piper invited speakers to his Desiring God National Conferences whose character and practices Sunny finds highly questionable, and Piper publicly participated in a “mystical type exercise”. Sunny concludes that Piper has been in some ways “led away from sola scriptura”, and has effectively written him off.

Tom: Now, I’m not about to critique Sunny’s choices here, Immanuel Can. I have more than a few doctrinal quibbles with Mr. Piper myself. But her post brings up a significant issue.

Getting Disappointed

Who among us hasn’t been disappointed at one time or another by the teaching or personal conduct of someone who once served as a role model in the faith? Our “heroes” are constantly falling off their pedestals, or at least appearing to do so — in the internet rumor mill, it’s pretty hard for a reader to really substantiate someone else’s accusation against a Christian public figure.

How do we handle these sorts of disappointments, IC? What criteria do we use to assess charges against other Christians to whom we are only very distantly connected in the real world, if at all? What remedies do we take if these charges are substantiated? How would the Lord have us handle such matters?

Immanuel Can: Terrific questions, Tom, and very relevant to today’s situation.

I’ve seen this problem repeatedly. People have a terrible hunger for a deeper spiritual experience. Along comes someone — usually a charismatic man — who seems to be drinking more deeply of the richness of spiritual life. He’s full of light, certainty, cheer and hope. He’s got direction. Like moths to a flame, spiritually thirsty people begin to hover around him. Being in company with him seems to open up better levels of spiritual life, so his followers get closer and closer, wanting more and more of that.

Spiritual Hunger

At first, he doesn’t disappoint. For the first time, his followers feel they’ve tasted something deeper. They invest themselves more and more — in their emotions, in loyalty, in trust, in time and resources, and above all, in their hopes for the future. “Finally,” they think, “I’ve found a way I can commit to. I’m no longer agonizing about where the right direction is. It may require sacrifice, but it’s all the better for that: I feel like I’m making a difference, and really ‘on the team’. At last I’m experiencing what being a Christian is supposed to be about.”

And then … inevitably … the man on whom they’ve focused their hopes crashes. Usually it’s sexual sin. It’s like the guy was being deliberately built up by an enemy determined to attract as many people as possible into dependence on him, and then to dash the guy to the ground so hard that they all shatter along with him.

Tom: That describes the phenomenon very well. But lately, probably because the internet has popularized so many more new Christian “personalities”, it’s also become very much a problem for women following women. I can’t count the numbers Glennon Doyle Melton, Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans have led off the spiritual rails or deeply confused, either through doctrinal departure or a sexual scandal.

Qualified Recommendations

Here’s a real difficulty I have, IC: I’m well aware this stuff happens. Furthermore, there have always been reasons to carefully qualify our recommendations of other believers. For example, I do not agree with many of C.S. Lewis’s expressed beliefs, and yet the man has been profoundly helpful to my spiritual life; likewise with F.F. Bruce, and plenty of other scholars. In fact, there are probably reasons we could disqualify almost everyone who has ever ministered publicly if we look closely enough at their doctrine and practice, and if we were of a particularly nit-picky disposition. (I’m talking here, of course, about things like endorsing infant baptism, not coming out as a lesbian. That’s a different sort of problem.)

But I hate to be one of these people who recommends the work of a fellow Christian, and follows it with a long list of caveats: “Of course, he’s wrong on this, that and the other, and don’t take him seriously about X or Y.” I hate adding giant disclaimers to everything I enjoy in the spiritual realm.

IC: Well, that isn’t always enough anyway, is it? What does one do in the case of someone who has all their doctrinal ducks in a row, but who falls into some sin subsequent to that? Doctrinal correctness is no absolute insurance against sins of the flesh, such as pride, lust or greed, after all.

Tom: No, absolutely not.

The Sins of Others

Look, I understand the impulse to distance ourselves from the sins of others. That’s sound advice Paul gave to Timothy, so we don’t want to be recommending people whose entire character is demonstrably compromised, or who hold such a chaotic mix of doctrinal positions that a neophyte reading them is bound to end up more confused than helped. But at the same time, I’d sure like to stop following my recommendations of a good blog post or book with a stream of qualifiers explaining all the things I didn’t like about it, or about the views the man who wrote it holds on other subjects entirely. Is that too much to ask?

IC: No. But we do have a serious problem in that people tend to merge “good doctrine” with the idea of the “infallible preacher”. Paul himself told people not to follow him as a man, but to test even his doctrine against scripture. But people want to find a guy and follow him. It’s not just that it’s easier. There is a spiritual rightness in the desire to meet an actual person behind the teaching of scripture, and not to stop at the scriptures themselves. But that person is supposed to be Christ. We sometimes settle for much less than we ought.

Technology and the Rumor Mill

Tom: Very much so. I hinted at an additional complication the internet brings us, which is that charges can be leveled at men and women of God that are quite spurious, or not at all what they originally purport to be. And yet because of technology, accusations spread so fast that a Christian can be discredited and his testimony to the larger believing community ruined almost overnight. When such accusations turn out to be false, the appropriate corrections never spread anywhere near as fast as the original charges. After all, there’s nothing interesting or salacious about “He didn’t do it!” So I tend to be careful about stories that “John Piper did this” or “John Piper believes that”. Just because I’m not a fan myself doesn’t mean that every bad thing said about the man is 100% true.

IC: Right. Computers have now even progressed to the point where we can create phony videos in which we can put the words of one person into the apparent “mouth” of another — and the computer can replicate the movements so perfectly that the human eye cannot detect a fake. So even seeing is no longer believing.

Let God Be True

So what about some solutions?

Tom: First, I’d love it if we could all just take for granted that people — even Christians — aren’t perfect. Then we could talk about the things we love about a book or message, always assuming that there are bound to be some areas of disagreement between reader and speaker/writer even where the person is mostly quite solid, and areas of practice that don’t measure up to our personal standards. More importantly, we need to recognize that the failure of any individual messenger is no reflection on the truth of the message. “Let God be true though everyone were a liar.”

IC: Yes, good. For me, the most important thing is this: diversify the leadership of your spiritual life. It’s not wrong to want help in growing spiritually, but it’s exceedingly dangerous — both to you and to the person you pick — if you treat someone as a kind of exclusive mentor or guru. A good spiritual leader will always be trying to spread his success to others, cultivating their gifts and lifting them up in his place, trying to create more leaders, aiming to work himself out of a job and out of prominence. He wants to serve, not take center stage. He’s nobody’s priest, mentor or guru.

In contrast, the guru type, the charismatic bad leader, is always the man who makes much of adulation and regards himself as indispensable. Often he seems to be doing a highly successful spiritual work — supernaturally successful, maybe. But the truth is that his heart is not right. Such men are really just narcissists, and their downfall is only a matter of time, because pride always goes before destruction. Let go of them before they take you down with them.

Tom: Absolutely. That, and don’t believe everything you read. Giving the benefit of the doubt until you have the testimony of two or three witnesses is always good practice. That means two or three independent witnesses, not just three websites recycling the same lies or half-truths.

IC: Anything else?

Tom: That might do it, unless you’ve got a good comeback.

IC: Not really. I guess “Don’t join a personality cult” is about the totality of it.

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Undoctored photo courtesy Micah Chiang [CC BY 2.0]

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