I’ve been a fan of Phillip Cary for a few years now, so when I learned he’d written a more “popular” book aimed at dispelling myths of “practical” Evangelical theology… well, it only took me about 5 seconds to buy it.
For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Cary is a professor of philosophy at Eastern University, a small religious liberal arts school home to such notable names as Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne. Cary wrote the book in response to questions his students were asking which, by his own admission, made no sense to him. Questions like, “How do I know what God’s will is for my life”, and, “How do I know that the voice I hear in my heart is God’s voice?”
Cary’s basic premise is this: “new evangelical theology” (as he calls it) masquerades as a set of “practical” suggestions, but in the end causes more harm than good. “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.”
As a student of the history of Christian theology, Cary is uniquely positioned to critique what he rightly suggests are a variety of theological positions that didn’t exist only a couple of generations ago, but have spread like wildfire through the church. In his words, this “new evangelical theology” “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 all 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.”
Cary notes that this is, “what you might call a ‘working theology,’ which is not an academic theory but a basis for preaching and discipleship, prayer and evangelism and outreach. It’s a theology that tells people how to live. It gives people practical ideas and techniques they’re supposed to use to be more spiritual.” Cary:
The techniques are named using familiar phrases that are now cliches in American evangelicalism: giving God control, finding God’s will, hearing God speak, letting God work, and so on. If you’re like my students, you’re already anxious about whether you’re doing this stuff right. And if that’s so, I figure you’ll feel even more anxious, not to mention guilty, when you think of not doing this stuff at all. But that’s what I’m going to invite you to think about in this book. What I’m telling you is what I tell my students: you don’t have to do this stuff. You might think: but wait a minute, isn’t this how you have a relationship with God? Don’t these phrases tell us something important about how to be Christian? And my answer is: not in the Bible they don’t. But it is true that in American evangelical churches today, this is what most people mean when they talk about having a relationship with God or being a Spirit-filled Christian.
The solution? For Cary, at the beginning, making sure people recognize that they have permission not to believe it. As he rightly notes, “[Life] is hard enough already without trying to apply these bad ideas to [your life].” When we are freed from this, life can become “about seeing the invitations in God’s word for what they are, so that our Christian life may be lived in cheerful obedience rather than in anxious efforts to get it right.”
So why have these “practical” techniques caught on, such that they are almost universal in churches today? Cary again:
Quite simply: they work. That doesn’t mean they make you holy or good Christians, but that when leaders use them and get others to use them, churches grow in numbers and retain their membership.
The new evangelical theology is essentially a set of practical ideas or techniques for living the Christian life. They “work,” but in a peculiar and not very Christian way. They make you anxious when you don’t use them, which makes you use them. That’s their real success: they reproduce themselves like a virus, until everybody has the virus – until everybody is using the techniques, saying the same things, participating in the same programs.
So what are these “practical” things? Cary’s chapter titles:
- Why you don’t have to hear God’s voice in your heart, or, how God really speaks today.
- Why you don’t have to believe your intuitions are the Holy Spirit, or, how the Spirit shapes our hearts.
- Why you don’t have to “let God take control”, or, how obedience is for responsible adults.
- Why you don’t have to “find God’s will for your life”, or, how faith seeks wisdom.
- Why you don’t have to be sure you have the right motivations, or, how love seeks the good.
- Why you don’t have to worry about splitting the head from the heart, or, how thinking welcomes feeling.
- Why you don’t have to keep getting transformed all the time, or, how virtues make a lasting change in us.
- Why you don’t always have to experience joy, or, how God vindicates the afflicted.
- Why “applying it to your life” is boring, or, how the Gospel is beautiful.
- Why basing faith on experience leads to a post-Christian future, or, how Christian faith needs Christian teaching.
The problem with these “practical” things, Cary notes, is that they are all about you. They are essentially techniques to keep you off balance, off center, thinking about yourself (or not thinking at all), instead of recognizing the beauty of the Good News – the Gospel – which is, after all primarily about Christ. “Listening to God’s voice in your heart” really amounts to listening to your own voice, “letting God take control” is really a way of absolving yourself of moral responsibility, “finding God’s will for your life” is trying to take a shortcut to real wisdom and discernment, and “applying it to your life” is a way of making faith about what you can do instead of what God has already done.
The end result? Cary:
The new evangelical theology promises you great experiences, but what it delivers is great anxiety. It makes your Christian life all about you and your experiences, which is not nearly so much fun as it pretends to be. The result is like being trapped in a bad party where everybody acts like they’re enjoying themselves, because they’re convinced that’s how they’re supposed to feel and they don’t want to let on that there’s something secretly wrong with them.
By undermining your sense of the reality of God – the reality of someone who exists outside of you – the new evangelical theology undermines your faith in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of learning what God says about himself in his word, you have to dance with shadows in your own heart and figure out which of them to call God. And when your experience with the new shadows disappoints you, you pretty much have to declare yourself disappointed with God. The new evangelical theology thus sets you up for a kind of consumer disappointment, when the elixir it’s selling turns out not to have the magical properties it claims. It doesn’t make your life turn out the way you want and it won’t make you immune from suffering and sadness. That’s not what the man on the cross promised.
Cary closes his book with a metaphor that he uses several times – the singing of old familiar Christmas carols, and the effect they have on our hearts. Preaching and hearing the Gospel, he suggests, is really like that:
And finally, the gospel is good for our spiritual lives. It may sound obvious when it’s put that way, but we often deny it in practice, thinking that improvement in our spiritual lives is ultimately up to us. The idea that we are supposed to “let God” do it is just one more way of making it ultimately up to us. The Gospel includes the good news that God has already done what needs to be done to transform our lives. To preach the gospel is to invite people to believe this startling truth, so that it might get to work in their hearts.
If you’re not sure what this kind of preaching sounds like, just call to mind a Christmas carol that gives you comfort and joy because of what it tells you about Christ, the newborn king. That’s what the gospel sounds like. We sing, “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.” This is not a set of instructions telling us how to feel or what to do to get to Bethlehem, but a word that gives us what it’s talking about – faith and joy and Christ himself. That’s what the gospel does: it tells Christ’s story in order to give him to all who believe. So words like “come ye to Bethlehem” bring us to Jesus, the baby lying in the manger who is the only begotten Son of God. When we believe the glad tidings these words have to give us, we receive this baby into our hearts. For what is accomplished by faith in the Gospel is not our practical activity but the work of the Spirit, who through the word of God gives us, once again, nothing less than Jesus Christ.