Christian Cultural Cognitive Dissonance
The Orthodox blog Byzantine, TX says that people who freak out over Benedict Option responses to the post-Christian world are not being serious. Excerpt:
Many people recoil from the idea of an intentional Christian community as if those people (in some misguided Benedict Option cult-mindedness) are unwilling to engage with the wider world. It’s odd to me that we build our lives around all sorts of things, but when we mention building our lives around Christians living next to other Christians and sharing in a liturgical life together, it’s seen as some form of white-feathered retreat.
For my part I find it odd that we think Christianity is done any favors by living in places that are hostile to it. We can acknowledge the unitive effect of cheering on a sports team and know for certain that wearing a Cowboys jersey in Philadelphia is going to get you jeered at publicly. And yet we live in places where neighbors call the police on Bible studies where too many people show up, our society permits all opinions in public debate except those that have a religious origin for fear of being non-inclusive or threatening, or we find ourselves trying to instruct our children in one way of living while our schools push their institutional bias towards intolerant progressivism.
If the pressure to secularize is omnipresent and the will to evangelize is missing, how can anything other than complete secularization occur?
So, I’m not advocating for walled communities of Christians living in fear of the big, bad areligious soccer mom wearing yoga pants. I am saying that you cannot both live in a civilization barreling towards a societal cliff and be unwilling to point that fact out to people. You cannot look down your nose at people who want to build a network of families who pray and live together and also hold yourself blameless for where our society is headed as you sit there silently effecting no change.
Read it all. Everybody wants to get to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.
- The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.
- In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.
- Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.
From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.
The critical responses to the BenOp I’ve seen have struck me as merely visceral. I’d like to see more careful and thorough articulation of the critiques. But if you don’t believe that the three premises I’ve listed above are true, then I think you’re whistling past the graveyard. And if you accept the premises but don’t agree with the conclusion, then we definitely need to do some exercises in logic.
I bring this up because today I heard news that a Christian singer well known among a number of charismatics and Evangelicals, Marty Sampson of Hillsong, has become apostate. The Evangelical commenter Ann Kennedy quotes Sampson’s now-removed Instagram post announcing that he no longer believes in Christianity:
Time for some real talk…I’m genuinely losing my faith…and it doesn’t bother me…like, what bothers me now is nothing…I am so happy now, so at peace with the world…it’s crazy/this is a soapbox moment so here I go xx how many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send 4 billion people to a place, all coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet-they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people…but it’s not for me. I am not in anymore. I want genuine truth. Not the “I just believe it” kind of truth. Science keeps piercing the truth of every religion. Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God. Got so much more to say, but for me, I keeping it real. Unfollow if you want, I’ve never been about living my life for others. All I know is what’s true to me right now, and Christianity just seems to me like another religion at this point…I could go on, but I won’t. Love and forgive absolutely. Be kind absolutely. Be generous and do good to others absolutely. Some things are good no matter what you believe. Let the rain fall, the sun will come up tomorrow.
The first lamentation, of course, is that this—I won’t say young, because I’m pretty sure, like Josh Harris, he is middle-aged—person was never catechized. That is, he was never instructed in the doctrines of the Christian faith. He, and I don’t think it is a leap to say this based on what he himself has said, was not taught to read the Bible. He wrote songs for a very popular Christian brand without anybody taking the trouble to ground him in the rich substantial heritage of the Christian life. And so he was able, without guile, to make some astonishing and unfounded claims. No one talks about all the contradictions in the Bible, he says. No one wants to talk about the moral the theological failures of pastors. And no one wants to say anything about the relative non-existence of miracles. These are curious assertions. He should get out more. The possibility of the Bible being stuffed with contradictions is a hot topic on the internet at least, and if he turns on the TV during Easter, he will be inundated with documentaries promising to debunk the whole book for him. A brief google search, similarly, will bring up more articles about abusive and sinful pastors than I can read in a week. And finally, his own church makes much of the possibility of miracles—they are constantly going on about it. But perhaps they aren’t delivering on their promises. Finally, he wraps up with the astonishing revelation that Christians can be judgmental.
A few Sunday afternoons of reading and conversation with some thoughtful and educated Christians (of which there are so so so many, it’s a pity he hasn’t met any of them) would correct all these misapprehensions, except the Christians being judgmental one, which is, of course, true. Indeed all human people are judgmental, and Christians are human, therefore Christians are judgmental—stupid me, dropping out of logic 101 after only a week. If anybody in his sphere with some theological acumen and kindness had thought about it, he might long ago have wrestled towards some true and useful answers to some of these difficult, but by no means intractable, questions. Unfortunately, I think the lack of intellectual and theological formation is a feature in the sort of world that made him famous, rather than a bug.
Kennedy is right: based on what Sampson says, it’s clear that he was never really catechized, and was formed by a Christianity that is primarily emotional. Here are the lyrics for one of his songs, “The Reason I Live”:
Jesus You are the reason I live (Woah)
Jesus You are the reason I live (Yeah)
When I think of things You’ve done for me
I know You are the reason I live
And I, I want to know You more each day
God please open my eyes
And show me Your way
You are the reason I live in this world
You are the One that I want to be like
You are the reason I live in this world
Show me the way to live
I want to be like You
I’ll always go Your way
And that will never change
You will be the One for all my days
I’ll always go Your way
And that will never change
You will be the One for all of my days
Listen to the song. That’s it? That’s the faith? Please don’t take me as snarking here, because that’s not my intention, but man, if this guy became a big deal in Christian worship writing songs like this, is it any wonder that his concept of Christianity was so trite, so shallow?
Here’s a clip of Sampson performing in 2014. If you think Marty Sampson and the Christian movement he represents, Hillsong, is nothing, notice that Hillsong fills up arenas with worshippers. They’re successful in attracting young people to a religious experience. It would not be fair to take one Hillsong leader, Sampson, and to judge the entire movement based on his apostasy. But as an outsider, reading his announcement of leaving Christianity, I think about what an Evangelical college professor told me in 2017 about the kids in his university: that 99 percent of them carry in their hearts a Christianity that is entirely based on youth-group emotionalism, and that has no serious theological foundation. He fears that when they leave the bubble of campus Evangelicalism, their faith will shatter under the pressures of the world.
I don’t know the world that Marty Sampson came from, so I am eager to hear from readers who do. It seems to me, though, that he surely must have been surrounded by people who agreed with him, and shared his professed commitments. It’s not like he was a lone Christian ranger making his way through a world of hostile unbelievers. And yet, he lost his faith. It is a painful, tragic thing to lose one’s faith, but again, to underscore Ann Kennedy’s point, what kind of faith did he lose? Marty Sampson is forty years old, and was an internationally successful Christian worship leader, yet his idea of Christianity seems not to have advanced much beyond high school church youth group.
What happened to Marty Sampson is not only about Marty Sampson, is what I’m saying. And it’s not only about pop Evangelicalism. People in every church are at risk of losing their faith — even you and me. It’s always a tragedy when that happens. But it compounds the tragedy when you see that they didn’t really have much substantive faith to lose.