Tuesday, May 25, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Why So Snarky?

I get hatemail.

Not nearly as much as Frank Turk or Kevin DeYoung, but I do get a bit—more and more as my blog’s readership has grown. And, of course, publishing Kinda Christianity created quite a bump in my inbox from emergent keyboard warriors who want to tell me how heartless it is for us to reveal their secret formula and how our words make Bono cry.

Apparently, though, I’ve hit some magical point of no return, after which every single thing I do attracts its share of critical response. For example, Ted Kluck and I recently filmed some goofy little “webisodes” for a Wayne’s World-esque comedy series called Pastor Zach’s Basement, which is currently being cut together by the incomparable WAC Productions. Last week, the aforementioned producer put together a brilliant little teaser trailer to build some hype. Go ahead and watch it; you know you want to.

As you can see, if you take away the bells, whistles and cool video effects, you’ve basically got me and Ted [this may be a good time for any small children to leave the room]...walking down some stairs! Oh, the horror! The hatred! Or so one would think, because—you guessed it—I got some hatemail. One particularly self-righteous screed came from a woman who tracked me down on Facebook after seeing the teaser trailer, feeling the need to send me an indictment of my life and ministry, mixed with her own ultra-deep thoughts on the “artform of religion,” mixing metaphors and skipping punctuation until I, the reader, gave up trying to follow.

But I do think I got the gist of it: why be snarky? is the question on her mind. Why be sarcastic and cutting about other people’s “spirituality?” Admitedly, the first thing that comes to my own mind when I hear this question is always Phil Johnson and his hilarious “po-motivators,” particularly these two:

I also think of Mike Wittmer’s recent reminder that people who get offended and mad about stuff like Kinda Christianity also love The Colbert Report, The Onion, and The Daily Show. Double standard much? Ultimately, though, “You do it too” or, “Hey, he started it” is no real response.

So instead, let me say this: I am a Reformational Christian. And in that, I do try to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther and my beloved John Calvin, both of whom preached Christ from the Scriptures (including the harsh stuff) and both of whom never minced words when error came creeping its way into the church. Granted, these men were not infallible, nor were their writings. In fact, at the Diet of Worms, Luther confessed that some of his writings against individuals had been a tad too harsh.

More specifically, though, I find myself in the tradition of the early Baptists who believed in religious toleration and were willing to give the benefit of the doubt on non-essential matters of faith, even while debating tirelessly and aggressively for their own doctrine. When essentials of the faith have been attacked, however, all of the above, at their best, took off the kid gloves and put on the spirit of the apostles, exposing false doctrine with anathemas, logic, and wit, and putting the spiritual security of their sheep always before the wounded pride of the wolves who would introduce such heresy.

The irony in all this is that I do have a rather big-tent view of Christianity; there are very few things that I consider deal-breakers, essential doctrines. I won’t break fellowship with my ultra-fundamentalist brothers and sisters or with my fellow mainline Protestand ministers (most of whom are incredibly liberal, theologically) for the usual beefs. I’m generally the guy cautioning, “Let’s not turn on each other. Let’s get beyond denominational differences and, as the unified body of Christ, show the world His love and grace.” (I’ve gotten more hate mail for that sentiment, by the way, than I have for anything I’ve written on the emergent church; see this post for more on that.) Why, then, make a big deal out of some doctrinal differences and not others? Why point out what’s wrong with someone else’s theology, rather than just preaching Christ?

Ah, there’s the rub. From whence should I preach Christ? From my own thoughts and ideas? From my personal experiences? From the goings-on in the cockles of my heart (or, perhaps, in the sub-cockle area)? Or from Scripture? If I preach Christ from the New Testament, then a large portion of what I preach (much of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels, much of the Book of Acts, II Thessalonians, all of Galatians, I & II John, Revelation 1-3, for a start.) will become out-of-bounds, as it was initially written to expose errors in other people’s theology! How uncouth! I can imagine Paul receiving angry messages from certain Galatians, or John being mail-bombed by Cerinthians, demanding to know why these men of God were being so divisive and harsh. After all, there may be some disagreement about the role of the law or the details of Christ’s identity, but can’t we all sweep that under the rug and just agree that love sorta wins?

Why would Paul make a joke about wanting his grace-neutralizing circumcision proponent opponents to “go ahead and cut it all off?” Why would John tell the elect lady and her children not to welcome into their homes a professed Christian who teaches a false Christ, or even to greet them? Why would Jesus paint an insulting picture of his opponents carefully straining out a gnat from their wine, even while they try to swallow down an entire camel? What occasions such rhetoric?

Since I’m a Baptist pastor, union rules require me to answer the question with an illustration:

Suppose there is a large organization called the Society for the Recovery of Sight for the Blind (SRSB). They were founded when a new, inexpensive technology became widely available, by which people who were born blind could see for the first time. This organization grew quickly, establishing chapters in most every city in the country. Early on, it was decided that it would be irresponsible to give sight to people who had never seen and then just send them out into the world. And so, when the official founding documents were drafted, the purpose of the organization was two-fold: to restore sight to the blind and to help these now-seeing people adjust and assimilate into a world of sight.

Then things began to change. Some large cities had waiting lists for sight restoration. Seeing this, committees were formed to work with those who were still blind while they waited their turn to receive sight. This initially involved preparation for sight restoration, but soon spread to include art appreciation campaigns (wherein the blind people feel the texture of oil paintings and listen to smell-enhanced audio books), blindness discussion groups, and the rather expensive enterprise of retro-fitting the homes of blind people with the latest technology so that they could function more easily and comfortably while they remain blind.

Before long, so much time, funds, and resources were going into these secondary efforts that fewer and fewer blind people were actually receiving their sight. The passion and direction of many chapters shifted away from returning sight to the blind and, instead, became wrapped up in blindness-affirming activities. Soon, it actually became taboo to talk about sight restoration, as the topic might imply to the blind that seeing is better than not seeing. Who are we to say? many chapter heads asked. Maybe we’re the ones who really can’t see and they have true sight. Things went down this road until a good number of the local chapters had completely “lost sight” of the original purpose of the group.

So what needs to happen here? Someone needs to take these people and their organization to task in a public way that involves the entire national SRSB. Someone (or many someones) needs to call these chapters back to the original stated purpose of the group—to say plainly that, while other organizations could be very useful in doing all these outlying activities, it’s not what our group was founded for! We’re the Society for the Recovery of Sight for the Blind. Anyone who keeps receiving grants under that name and operating under that name needs to get back to doing that work primarily (if not exclusively). And groups that continually do work that celebrates blindness and suggests that no radical sight-restoration procedure need take place are free to do so, but they really ought to change their name in the interest of openness and honesty.

The Scriptures paint a clear picture of sinners as being spiritually blind or, as Jesus said in John 5:24, dead. Perhaps a better illustration, then, would be a group that stops raising people from the dead and, instead, starts hosting deadness awareness events, helping the dead achieve “wholeness,” and organizing ice cream socials for corpses.

Let the dead bury the dead. And let us call them to life!

So, yeah, when a sector of the church visible, wearing the name of Jesus Christ, stops calling sinners to repentance, stops viewing God’s Word as the authoritative final authority, and stops proclaiming the forgiveness of sins by grace through faith because of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross, I’m going to go all St. Paul on them.

Hatemail or no.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

7 reader comments:

Erin said...

An excellent, reasoned response... which I'm sure will get you hatemail from the hoards of illogical, feelings-based Christians who dish out criticism but can't stomach it themselves.

chisg said...

I see that all the time from Rick Warren worshippers, they criticize reform style churches for not being relevant and not caring about the needs of other, but get called a hater if I dare challenge their conclusions

JB said...

The point is Theology is beautiful, but it is an artform!

Jack Ignatius Lumanog said...

Snark is huge for our generation. Only hate mail from my blog was when I said I love foie gras. Was called a pharisee and some other kind words.

Joshua Ottinger said...

wow, just wow, superb...and bonus points for the one-off Dennis Leary reference.

WarAxe said...

Very nicely done.

Pastor Pants said...

Good post! Thanks.