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The Nameless One

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Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled programming. I had something else to post today but wanted to put it on hold for a day or two so I can draw your attention to what I consider a very important article. It comes from Carl Trueman and is titled “The Nameless One.” In the past few months I’ve sat down again and again to write out some of my thoughts about the whole Young, Restless, Reformed movement we are experiencing today. But never have I quite been able to convey my thoughts on it as clearly and succinctly as I’d like. I’ve wanted to share both praise for what God is doing and misgivings for what I think we, the church, are doing poorly. Never was I able to strike the balance, so I just left it rotting in my drafts folder.

Trueman, though, has nailed it. Here is how he begins:

Over the last few months, I have been asked in numerous contexts what I think about the young, restless and reformed (YRR) movement(s) described in Collin Hansen’s book of the same name. I did do a quasi -review of this book some time ago, in which I argued that the existence of the movement seemed to indicate that all the hype surrounding the emergent business was probably overwrought and that there was no need for complete panic in Reformed circles.

In retrospect, however, there are a number of things which should give some cause for critical reflection on this new interest in Reformed theology. Let me preface this by saying that the more people reading the Bible, the better, as far as I am concerned; the more people going to church and hearing the gospel preached, the more we should all be rejoicing; and the more people studying the writings of Calvin, Owen and company, the happier we should all be. Only the modern day equivalents of the Scottish Moderates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would grumble and complain that more people are spending more time hearing more sermons, reading more scripture and studying more classic Christian literature. But just because a movement has good effects does not mean that we should be blind to its shortcomings and potential pitfalls.

It’s probably best if you go ahead and read the article. You can do so right here.

In my many conversations about all things YRR, I’ve said time and again that it is, in my opinion, a uniquely American phenomenon. Sure it has spilled over to other countries, but its roots are American and its “heroes” are largely American. And still I’ve wondered if it will take a non-American to explain it. Several times I’ve spoken to non-Americans about the phenomenon and they’ve always agreed that the U.S. cult of celebrity is at least one of the root causes of what we see in the church. I think Trueman captures some of this with these words: “One striking and worrying aspect of the movement is how personality oriented it is. It is identified with certain big names, rather than creeds, confessions, denominations, or even local congregations. Such has always been the way with Christianity to some extent. Luther was a hero, both in his own time and for subsequent generations, and he is hardly alone. The names of Owen, Edwards, and Spurgeon, to list but three, also have great cachet; and, if we are honest, there are things which we all find in their writing which are scarcely unique to them but which we are inclined to take more seriously because it is these men who wrote the words on the page.” Said even stronger, “The world has Brad, Anjelina, Tom, Barack, and so on; the Christian world has – well, I am sure the reader is quite capable of filling in the blanks. All too often we’re a bit too much like the church in Corinth, with its Christian competitive equivalents to pagan Sophists.”

If we see the YRR movement as essentially built upon and around celebrities (many of them as flabbergasted as anyone by their sudden rise to prominence) we begin to see other concerns. “The supply side economics of the YRR movement is also worrying here, as it can easily foster such idolatry by building up a leader’s importance out of all proportion to his talent. Let’s face it: no preacher is so good that his every sermon deserves to be printed or his every thought published; but some contemporary leaders are heading fast in that direction, and this can only fuel their cultic significance for those needing someone to follow. Come on, chaps, everyone preaches a disastrous clunker once in a while; and many actually preach them with remarkable and impressive regularity. The world therefore does not need to read every word you ever utter from a pulpit; and not every electrical impulse which sparks between the synapses in your grey matter needs to be written down, turned into yet another expository commentary, and sold for 15% net royalties at the local Christian bookshop.”

We are seeing as well that as Reformed goes mainstream, every publisher wants its slice of the pie. That raises this concern: “Carrying on from this danger of personality cults, part of me also wonders if the excitement surrounding the movement is generated because people see that Reformed theology has intrinsic truth or because they see that it works, at least along the typical American lines of numbers of bodies on seats (in Britain, we’d say `bums on seats’ but that phrase rather gains in translation).” “It works” (a.k.a. “it sells”) is enough of a reason for many of the publishers to make sure they are publishing books to appeal to the audience, for musicians to play up their Reformed connections, and so on.

Trueman’s final concern, the one that gave his article its name, is this: “Finally, I worry that a movement built on megachurches, megaconferences, and megaleaders, does the church a disservice in one very important way that is often missed amid all the pizzazz and excitement: it creates the idea that church life is always going to be big, loud, and exhilarating and thus gives church members and ministerial candidates unrealistic expectations of the normal Christian life.”

The article closes this way:

Ultimately, only the long term will show if the YRR movement has genuinely orthodox backbone and stamina, whether it is inextricably and inseparably linked to uniquely talented leaders, and whether `Calvinism is cool’ is just one more sales pitch in the religious section of the cultural department store. If the movement is more marketing than reality, then ten to fifteen years should allow us to tell. If it is still orthodox by that point, we can be reasonably sure it is genuine. Indeed, when torn jeans, or nose rings, or ministers talking about their sex lives from the pulpit become passé or so commonplace that they cease to be distinctive, we will see if it is timeless truth or marketable trendiness which has really driven the movement; and, even it proves to have been the latter, we should not panic. We will still be left with the boring, mundane and nameless people and culturally irrelevant and marginal churches – the nameless ones — upon whose anonymous contributions, past and present, most of us actually depend.

I do want to give glory to God for what seems to be a clear work of his hand. He is stirring people with old truths that, for so many years, had gone into serious decline. At the same time, whatever movement there is to Reformed theology seems to be driven more by personality than confession or creed. My overriding concern with YRR from the very start is that it is a kind of ecumenical Reformed Christianity, picking only the bits that appeal. So we take the soteriology and ignore the ecclesiology. We cherry pick the bits we want and put the rest aside. While there is not necessarily anything wrong with this, my sense of history is strong enough to know that this is rarely a mark of strength. What coordinates the movement, what truly holds it together, is less a common theology and more a common list of heroes and celebrities. And that is not a firm foundation; though fun while it lasts, I just do not see how it can stand the test of time.

I would love to hear your impressions of Trueman’s article once you’ve had time to read it.


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