Tuesday, March 30, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Timothy Didn't Give "Life Advice" (a sort-of book review)

EDIT: For the record, I must have been in a bad mood when I wrote this. I recently used a passage from Stuff Christians Like as a sermon introduction and found it quite funny. Take the following with a grain of salt. (Although, I don't think Anonymous was right about me being "bitter.")

"What up, m'NERDS?!" [Todd Packer]

I am back on the blog with a vengeance and, unlike my defeated return from the last hiatus, this re-mounting of the horse signifies that the book is DONE. (We're just trying to get Frank Turk to write the foreword; he may have been kidnapped by drug lords or something, but apparently they're still letting him blog.) Anyway, more on the book in a later post. I'd point you toward http://www.gutcheckpress.com/, but there's not really anything there yet. Next week, I'm thinking.

[Oh, and I'm not even going to bring up the upcoming web series Pastor Zach's Basement. I mean how much rocking can your world withstand in a single blog post? Ted's already worried that Brian McLaren might sue us, without additional anxiety about a class-action lawsuit by droves of people whose world has been over-rocked.]

At any rate, let me answer the question on everyone's mind (and on their lips and in their hearts): what else have I been up to in my spare time these past six weeks? Well, when I haven't been drawing and writing and smoking pipes with Ted in the basement, I've been reading. Got through a lot of stuff that had piled up next to my bed and some stuff that I need to review for an upcoming blog tour.


As a little treat to myself, I capped it all with Stuff Christians Like, by Jonathan Acuff. I know, I know--another blatant Christian ripoff. But he acknowledges in the book that he ripped it off and, in a satisfyingly ironic move, uses his own co-opting of a secular phenomenon to illustrate one of the things that Christians like (i.e., disregarding international copyright), which kind of made it all okay.

All in all, the book was not nearly as funny as I had hoped. I mean, the subject is pregnant with comedic possibility. His style was agreeable enough and he is certainly a talented writer (apart from a random over-use of the word "sweaty"), but I didn't find myself laughing much. Or wanting to laugh. I think part of the problem was that the author is a member of a mega-church with a house band, giant jumbotron screens, and chairs that need to be stacked each Sunday so that the "worship space" can be used by one of the other nineteen people on staff. Yeah, that's funny, but since that's not my world, most of his jokes didn't hit home with me. A whole different set of foibles is associated with my religious tradition.

Instead of guffawing, I found myself critiquing the theological error present just below the surface in most of his little articles (perhaps "critiquing theological error in humor books" should have been one of the things Christians like). Since it's a "Christian Book," most of the articles (originally blog posts) ended with a "now let's get serious" moment, in which is found a mini-devotional (and, yes, he acknowledges that this is also one of the things Christians like). But his devotions showed a total lack of understanding when it comes to rightly dividing Law and Gospel.

For example, one of the things Christians like was "not listening when the youth pastor is the guest preacher." Acuff humorously goes through a middle-aged man's inner-monologue as he sees this punk in his early-twenties get up on the "stage," preparing to preach the sermon. I don't have the book with me, but it was along the lines of, "You better not give me life advice, kid, because the hardest decision you've ever made is whether to get the 14- or 21-meal plan at college" and, "You better not try and give me marital advice because you're still tan from your honeymoon."

Kind of edgeless humor, yes, but the real problem came when he unleashed the "let's get serious" moment. You see, he didn't correct the assumptions behind the guy's inner-monologue as he had corrected many (perceived) false assumptions in other articles. I'm not saying he should have quoted I Timothy 4:12 (although I am very thankful that ten years ago, when I was in my early twenties, my church gave me ample opportunities to cut my teeth at preaching; I'm far better for it.) No, the real problem is this: the reader is left with the impression that the author really thinks that the purpose of preaching on Sunday morning is to give life advice, marriage advice, financial advice, etc.

But it's not.

That's why Timothy (probably in his late teens or early twenties) could preach the Gospel. That's why a twelve-year-old (see my favorite movie, The Apostle) can powerfully (if a bit Finneyistically) preach the Gospel. And that's why the church has historically been much stronger than it is now. Because we used to offer the world something they couldn't get on Oprah. Something not rooted in "felt needs" and scratching itching ears. Something that doesn't require jumbotron screens.

We used to offer the world Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.
And we used to offer the Church Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.
And some of us still do.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach