Monday, September 16, 2013

Monk He See, Monk He Do: On the "Internet Monk"

From the September 2010 E-Block.


For some time now, I have had in view to do an article on Michael Spencer, better known in some circles as “the Internet Monk.” Spencer is an unusual example of someone who managed to parlay everyday blogging into greater recognition; about the time of his tragic death of cancer earlier this year, his first book, Mere Churchianity, went into print. Prior to that book, Spencer had blogged for approximately a decade, gaining over that time a significant and dedicated following. 

The expressions of that dedicated following are partly what made it a good time to finally pursue this article. A lesser factor is that Spencer’s material, due to his untimely death, is now a closed canon; there is also the factor that he at one time had an exchange of sorts with James White (see one of White’s accountings of it here). But it is the strong reactions to Spencer’s death by his readership that spurred the most interest in me. From some of what I found said, one might believe that some sort of superhero had perished, and one that disdained all recognition as a superhero. So I thought it worth checking now to see why Spencer amassed this legacy among so many people.

What did I find in sum?

It could be put best this way: There was a lot right about Spencer and a lot wrong about him. What was right with him was the sort of thing you could hear here, or from any concerned apologetics ministry. What was wrong with him was nothing different than what is wrong with a thousand thousand pastors across the country. I can hazard that Spencer’s popularity came of a certain talented way of saying things that moved the hearts of those for whom rational discourse was less important than empathy and feeling. He didn’t quite dive into the emergent church, but he came close enough to the pool to get wet when someone jumped in.

Overall, it would have been preferable for someone like, say, NT Wright to have gotten the sort of readership Spencer got. It is not that Spencer was against education and apologetics, as some are – he even briefly did a blog called “Coffee Cup Apologetics,” reported on apologetics issues on his blog, and a small chunk of this book [84ff] includes some contextualizing material that would be right at home in the scholarly works we recommend (with even hints of an “impossible faith” type argument, 90). But we still get that in reading his material, one dearly wishes that someone more competent were at the helm, and someone less inclined to resort to arguments from pity when rational discourse failed him. Spencer’s popularity can be explained as the result of an age when it is thought that just because someone has “passion,” they deserve to be recognized as an authority.

My evaluation here is based solely on the contents of Mere Churchianity (MC), which I take to be a distillation of some of Spencer’s best thoughts, and therefore a fair basis for depth evaluation.

Right Problems

Spencer’s message has a lot of value in it, and the reader will find much that is equally of concern to us.

The Church Broken

Spencer rightly recognized that what we call the “church” today is frequently operating in ways inconsistent with what Jesus taught. He recognizes that discipleship is almost non-existent, such that the Bible is not taught in a properly contextual manner and we know almost nothing about the life of Jesus. [6-7] He also has a lot to say about the current crisis of faith which is causing the death of Christianity in America [23]; he predicted, even as Daniel Wallace did, that we had but two decades to go before half of the evangelical church would disappear into the void.

Spencer is also blunt and generally correct about current abuses in the church. He references such things as “multimillion-dollar facilities”, insipid praise choruses (“How long could Jesus remain on his feet when directed to sing fifteen consecutive worship choruses, each one only seven words long and repeated twenty-three times?” [14-15]), and other abuses symptomatic of a church hooked on entertainment and good feeling. His condemnation of the health and wealth gospel (God as “celestial vending machine” [75]) is particularly satisfying. He also is disturbed, as we are, by the “consumer-friendly, all American terms” on which preaching is based in Joel Osteen’s church (though it is peculiar that in some criticisms of Osteen, he refers to him in an anonymous way [28], while elsewhere, he freely names him [72]). Spencer even expresses dismay over the very example we have noted many times of how God allegedly will help you find a parking space!

Finally, Spencer does well to bemoan the church’s lack of focus on the Sermon on the Mount as a guide for Christian behavior. [56] Rightly he says, “Obedience is action, not merely a set of beliefs.” [99]

Get Over Yourself

On a more personal level, Spencer delivers appropriate conscience –pricking messages about Christian excess: “Would Jesus drive a Lexus? For many Christians, it doesn’t seem to matter. I’m convinced that Jesus wouldn’t wear a $5,000 wristwatch or drive an $80,000 car.” [43] I tend to think Spencer is right – and I say that as a Christian who doesn’t wear a watch and who drives a $25,000 gas-electric hybrid. Social responsibility is a neglected part of many Christian’s daily lives.

Spencer also disdains the overpersonalized nature of some worship. He notes that Jesus never mentioned asking him to be our “Personal Savior” [55] and also rightly recognizes that the “Kingdom of God” is an ideological entity [95].
Writer’s No-Block

As a writer, Spencer is also frequently clever and gifted. Perhaps the most poignant of his word pictures is the example of how a “Deer Crossing” sign does not mean you will always see deer nearby. [12] So likewise, he says, seeing a church sign does not mean there are always Christians nearby.

Wrong Solutions

The weaknesses of Spencer’s material, in contrast, come about mainly as the result of a sort of naivete. It is clear that Spencer’s vision of “Jesus- shaped spirituality” is informed by a misguided perception of a “sentimentalist-shaped Jesus” who, though living in the first century and Jewish, is as much a kindly American as Mr. Rogers. The Jesus who harshly condemned his opponents and even insulted them never makes an appearance. Yet he should, for to have it otherwise rejects the balance that Jesus set for us between loving kindness to the sinner and firm resistance to the sinner’s errors. One without the other is an incompleteness.

Dairy Queen Guilt Trip

The story with which MC begins illustrates this well. Spencer recounts of how, as a young youth pastor, he brought his youth group to a local Dairy Queen, where they engaged in all sorts of mischief. Used to such shenanigans, Spencer did nothing to correct the youth or to clean up the mess they made. Sometime later, Spencer received a letter from an atheist who worked at the DQ, informing him that “Christians like you have convinced me that God is a myth.”

Apparently, this letter haunted Spencer for a number of years. And we must say from the start that we are NOT saying, when we respond as we do below, that Christians should feel free to behave as Spencer’s youth group did; yes, he certainly should have controlled them, and cleaned up the mess they made. However, Spencer’s guilt regrettably led him to don a pair of blinders when it came to the earnestness of his atheist correspondent.

In more general terms, the problem is one that goes beyond Spencer, beyond any pastor or youth group. As we have noted many times, “personal testimony” is never used in the NT as a basis for evangelism. Brute fact – the Resurrection, the miracles of Jesus, fulfillment of OT prophecy – is what is used. One of the tragic moves of modern Christianity has been to make personal testimony the basis for evaluating Christian truth. This is a trap that has allowed critics like the atheist correspondent to engage the ludicrous dictum that the measure for whether God exists is how professing Christians behave. Rather than permitting the atheist this fancy, Spencer should have apologized for his youth group, even gone so far as to offer to have them do "cleaning duty" at the DQ for a day – and then set the record straight about what constitutes an epistemic basis for Christianity.

Of course that assumes that the atheist was genuine, which is another matter. Strangely, Spencer at first allows for the possibility that the atheist was merely a “self-righteous” specimen who “needs someone to blame.” [2] But, he supposes, you could be “dead wrong” [3] about that estimation. By the end of his accounting of the matter three paragraphs down, though, he goes from “could be” to describing the letter as an “honest, heartfelt critique.” [3]

After so many years of dealing with atheists like this correspondent, my considered thought was, Say what????

Honest and heartfelt? Not in the least. Such critiques are rather used by atheists to invoke guilt trips in Christians, based on the premise of personal testimony as a validation of truth. Is that the criterion the atheist actually uses to decide truth? If it were, then what would happen if the next week, the Freethinker Youth came to the DQ and burned the place down? Would this atheist have then decided that atheism was false? More to the point, if behavior is the measure, then how about we weigh in with the Christian record of charity – admittedly balanced to some extent by things like the Inquisition (though these too are often overplayed), but still no match for the death record of atheism, ranging from the Reign of Terror to Stalin to Pol Pot? For Spencer to say that this atheist “cared enough to tell me that my credibility as a Christian was zero” [4] is ironically tragic.

Spencer says that he had “respect” from that atheist, but that is the last thing the atheist deserved for their performance. It was manipulative and dishonest, and sadly, accomplished with Spencer exactly the purpose intended.
Relatedly, Spencer also tells the story of an evangelical young man who took part in a gay pride parade, even though he was married and heterosexual. [177] When asked why he did so, the young man said it was because “he experienced far greater acceptance and friendship in the gay community he sought to minister to than he did with seminary or church friends.” That’s unfortunate, but really – how does this equate with the question of whether or not homosexuality is immoral? Once again: If a band of Stalinists provided “greater acceptance and friendship” than a church group, would this fellow happily join them in torturing gulag prisoners? This is somewhat facetious, but the point is that “acceptance and friendship” is not a purchase price for deciding a moral question. I myself have many times felt “excluded” from church groups, as some of Spencer’s readers have – after all, many people have no idea what apologetics is, and tend to view what I do with suspicion! But to allow that to moderate my decisions about moral and theological issues is simply irresponsible. It is also the end result of making “personal testimony” the measure of Christian truth.

Culture Peacenik

Another class of Spencer’s errors has to do with his reaction to what some call the “culture war.” In this regard, it seems that Spencer did not have a “long view” of how cultural engagement interacts with Christian faith – which is odd given that his blog endorses Ravi Zacharias’ ministry, which is at the forefront of helping Christians understand such things.

He says, for example, “Does Jesus really care whether a teacher is allowed to lead kids in prayer in a public school classroom or if an Alabama courtroom is decorated with the Ten Commandments?” [14]

There are two issues of note here. The first is that Spencer has failed to factor in the “media hype” in these equations. He has adopted a mythology that the “hubbub” being made in the media over these issues is equitable with that being made by eg, the parent who is distressed by the loss of prayer in schools. Thus he is implicitly setting these issues side by side with such issues as feeding the hungry (which Jesus would obviously care about), as though the latter were being neglected by concern for the former. If that is so, then the media is the one who should be targeted, since it is they who feature stories over things like the Alabama courtroom while giving less time (and far less sensational coverage) to great problems of human need (and also ignoring charitable efforts by religious organizations to resolve those needs).

Second, Spencer has unwittingly fallen for the deistic perception of God and Jesus – the sort of reasoning that led the likes of Strauss to suppose that Jesus could not have performed the miracle of having Peter catch so many fish, because he was too busy thinking about things like quasars and supernovae. Does Jesus really care about prayer and décor? By the same token it could be asked, “Does Jesus really care about how much fish Peter catches?” But the deeper answer is that while Jesus may care for neither décor nor fish as such, his care in the matter is all about the macrohistory behind the catching of fish, behind the loss of prayer, and behind the removing of the Commandments from that courtroom – not merely these isolated incidents. The fish miracle was a way to draft Peter into Jesus' cause – which in the long term, meant hiring on someone who was designed by God to bring the Gospel effectively into the oikoumene. So likewise, it’s not merely about surrendering prayer in one classroom, or décor in one courtroom: It’s about smothering the Gospel message in the public square and reducing the chance for people to freely hear it. It is also about the fact that other faiths, like Hinduism and Islam, are given freer rein where Christianity not. Whatever else one may make of the issue, or whatever side one is on, it is far more complex and deep than Spencer made it out to be.

Spencer asks, “Can we honestly say that Jesus was a culture warrior?” The question is a bit misplaced; Jesus’ resident culture, soaked as it was in the Old Testament, had already firmly decided what was what when it came to such things as homosexuality and abortion, and “politics” was decided by Rome’s iron fist and was not open to debate. Jesus as a culture warrior wouldn’t have had many targets, so any perceived inaction on his part isn’t a valid argument. But it’s also a bit inconsistent that Spencer makes an excellent point about how Jesus would not eg, drive a Lexus, while also implying that he would not care about prayer in school. He rightly derides Christians for driving an SUV, but then turns around and implies that it is a problem that we’re spending time on abortion rights. Isn’t what we drive a serious “cultural” issue? It seems that Spencer is so worried about how non-Christians perceive the fight against things like abortion that he failed to check himself for consistency. (Indeed, he later gently mocks those who rework Jesus into their image as one who drives “an environmentally sound hybrid car.” [71] Does he think we should care about “What Would Jesus Drive,” or not?)

Exegetical Legedermain

Overall, Spencer is responsible in his use of Scripture, but there are occasional questions to be raised. He offers a midrashic reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son [20-1], albeit one no different than that made by countless pastors (see January 2010 E-Block). He also drags a solution to “illegal immigration” out of Jesus’ treatment of prostitutes and sinners. [52] Regardless of where one stands on the issue of immigration, this is simply absurd: Spencer illicitly generalizes illegal immigrants and prostitutes into a catch-all category of “outsiders,” when the issue is far more complex and involves such matters as correspondent increases in crime and drains on social resources. The issue is not merely that illegal immigrants are “strangers” or “outsiders”.

Spencer also wrongly defines the “image of God” as having “some sort of personal experience of God by virtue of being human beings.” [60] This is nearly as erroneous as the Mormon understanding of the term to mean that God is a glorified human. (It actually refers to us having God’s governing authority on earth.) He also wrongly applies the story of Jesus telling the rich young ruler to give all his riches to the poor, using it as some sort of indication against the construction of “a multi-million dollar facility.” [121] While there are good arguments against such facilities (at least, building them for show – not for service, as in, helps ministry centers and schools), the example of the rich young ruler is not one of them: This advice was given to the ruler as an individual, because riches were his personal stumbling block. Were it not so, persons like Zaccheus and Nicodemus – among the wealthiest men of their age – would have been told to do the same.

Bad Student

Finally, a few places where the apologist in me absolutely cringed….

A red flag is raised by Spencer’s bewilderment over the criticism received by The Shack; he does not see that the overpersonalization of God it offers, and which he so admires it for, is the most serious of its problems.

Spencer rightly suggests that Christians do well to read their Bible on their own [118] and read and interpret it for themselves [119], and recognizes that Christians will need study help in so doing. He also recommends the use of mentors. [200] That said, despite his earlier admonition against regarding God as a cosmic gumball machine, Spencer goes on to treat God as just that when it comes to Bible interpretation: “Listen to the Spirit in the Scripture! Ask what it is that God is saying.” [126] And: “Inside or outside the church, when an individual reads the Bible and is genuinely looking for God and God’s truth, doesn’t the Holy Spirit respond by speaking to that person?”

Well – no. That’s a modern idea with no Scriptural of logical support; it CAN happen, but there is no reason to think it does apart from other solid evidence. Also contrary to his point about study help, Spencer bemoans the risk of “gluing the pages of God’s Word together unless a certified authority is present to manage the process.” [121] The very crisis he bemoans in evangelicalism is partly the result of ignoring “certified authority” in forms such as rational scholarship, and instead doing Bible study with “What does it mean to ME?” as the central question. In the Biblical world, 97% of the people were illiterate, and had to have the Word of God explained to them by “certified authority” – priests and apostles. This is, of course, by no means an argument for some sort of infallible magisterium, but it is an argument that each believer needs to become a “certified authority” to read and apply God’s Word accurately. Spencer neglects half of the equation.

“I believe I can trust the Holy Spirit,” [125] he says – well, a Mormon believes he can do that, too! And Spencer says also, “God shakes off the dusty interpretations and applies his Word in fresh, new ways to unreached purposes and people.” [127] Well, hang on a second – the Mormons think so too, as do dozens of cults. There can be no doubt that God permits midrashic applications (it is done for the way the NT uses the OT), but to do so requires prophetic authority and in turn a willingness to submit to a Deuteronomic test – not mere say-so. That Spencer was unaware of this is odd inasmuch as he admits that the “apostles were in a unique position” [127]. So why are we to think others have been put in the same unique position? His only answer is that he thinks it is being done. Epistemically, Spencer here is no better than the preacher he derides (rightly) who merely “flops open a Bible on the pulpit” and then starts preaching a message, “Ten Ways to Have Joy That Never Goes Away.” [142] Besides, if we have the Spirit like this, why do we need mentors, as he said earlier?

Spencer later asks, “Do you prefer one man claiming infallibility telling you what the Bible says, or twenty thousand very fallible people who are reading the Bible and looking to be corrected by its truth?” [123] My answer is that I want a better set of choices – I want 20,000 and more people striving to be as infallible as they can in their exegesis, and not just “reading the Bible”! But Spencer would apparently not care for that option, for he says later, “The Holy Spirit does not call us to become an overstuffed theological brain with a vocabulary that requires its own laptop.” [169] Aside from the resentment that seeps from these words, we might point out as we have elsewhere that you don’t need to become that either – save that as compared to first century people, we’re generally plain dumb when it comes to understanding what the text says! In that sense, even Peter was smarter than today’s churchgoer with a doctorate in medicine when it comes to such things as high context, hypostatic expressions of divinity, and midrashic exegesis. Our brain doesn’t need to be “overstuffed” – it needs to have something in it from the start!

Please Don’t Hurt Me

Spencer’s interaction with White leads to one final misgiving. As most readers know, I have had my exchanges with White, and each of us played the riposte field in turn. Now compared to White’s response to me, his response to Spencer was exceptionally mild. Yet Spencer was so overwhelmed and hurt by White’s response that he actually shut down his blog for a few days!

What did White do to cause this? Truly, little more than we did here in our “problems” section – he noticed that Spencer was inconsistent, and also asked him to back up his claims. Apparently, Spencer was unable to meet these requests, and withdrew into a shell.

Unfortunately, certain of Spencer’s followers were just as unwilling to forego the challenge of self-examination. Some (though I am sure not endorsed by Spencer) even went so far as to refer to White in profane terms (I recall one such person referring to White as a “s***-starter” and creating a parody of White as “Dr. Evil”). For them, the mere fact that Spencer’s feelings were hurt – even by reasonable requests for Spencer to validate his arguments – was enough to warrant that sort of backlash.

Spencer’s methods were such that he occasionally attracted and perpetuated this kind of irrationalism (though obviously, not in all readers, and not to the same extent in all of them). He believed that Christianity was meant to fulfill a seeking after for “genuine human experience” [169] and “mystery, not explanation” [170] – essentially and unwittingly turning it into a panacea for modern neuroses of insecurity and discomfort. He also frequently turned to pity when argument failed him: White would ask for an answer, and Spencer responded with some admonition like, “Go read the Gospel of John in a cancer center.” I daresay this was a way for Spencer to get out of providing the answer he knew he was incapable of providing – and many of his readers “fell for it,” so blinded by their anger and resentment that they ignored Spencer’s inconsistencies to a fault.

For that reason, I could never recommend that anyone take Spencer’s work as authoritative, despite all the good points he makes. While I believe he was earnest about protecting the faith he cherished, Spencer was not up to the task of actually doing it.

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