Friday, May 10, 2013

Popular Pastors: Max Lucado

I had planned Part 6 on Mirsch this week, but the Word file got corrupted for no real reason this morning. So I'll have to do it later, and it may be  a while: The Ticker will be off a week while I attend a conference. Meanwhile here's this one from the March 2010 E-Block.
Our next entrant in this series is yet another producer of many books: The list produced by Max Lucado is as extensive as that of Swindoll or Meyer, though also as apt to repeat some of the same material across volumes. Our sample for this project was:

[GFA] The Gift for All People
[TL] Travelling Light
[ES] In the Eye of the Storm
[IGG] In the Grip of Grace
[WGW] When God Whispers Your Name
[CT] Come Thirsty

A few words to begin about content and style. Although Lucado is non-controversial as a minister, I am disappointed to say that his works sampled offer some of the least amount of Scriptural exegesis of anyone we have thus far surveyed. In part this is because when he does use Scripture, he mostly uses texts that are self-explanatory. However, it is also because his material, by my estimate, has a higher percentage of jokes and anecdotes than any other author thus far. Lucado’s approach is evidently far more therapeutic than it is serious. In addition, like Rick Warren, Lucado frequently uses modern paraphrases of the Bible to support his points, sometimes flipping between versions to find one that uses the exact word or idea he needs. 

The news is not all bad. IGG, for example, offers an excellent explanation, on a popular level, of salvation, atonement, and the Christian life. However, the bulk of Lucado’s material comes across as little more, again, than therapeutic literature. In addition, if I may become a literary critic for a moment, I found Lucado’s writing style the most difficult to absorb of all the writers we have seen so far. He frequently writes in short, pithy phrases reminiscent of William Shatner as Captain Kirk. Still, he is gifted enough as a storyteller than I can readily understand why he has been so successful.

The Familiarity Factor

In our past examinations, we have checked certain thematic concerns in each writer. With Lucado, the problem of making God too familiar reaches almost epidemic heights, exceeding even that offered by the likes of Osteen or Stanley. Indeed, the problem is so severe in Lucado that we are able to divide the issue into sub-categories.

Personal identification. Lucado goes to great lengths to assure the reader that one of the chief aspects of the incarnation was that God became able to identify with humans in their lives and experiences. These quotes are exemplary:

GFA33 “You are precious to him. So precious that he became like you so that you would come to him…When you struggle, he listens. When you yearn, he responds. When you question, he hears. He has been there.”

ES32 “Jesus knows how you feel.”
ES 34-5 “God knows how you feel. From the funeral to the factory to the frustration of a demanding schedule. Jesus understands. When you tell God that you’ve reached your limit, he knows what you mean. When you shake your head at impossible deadlines, he shakes his head, too. When your plans are interrupted by people who have other plans, he nods in empathy. He has been there. He knows how you feel.”
ES 82-3 Regarding Jesus praying: “Now it occurs to me that Jesus needed to call home in the middle of the hassles as much as I did...He needed a minute with someone who would understand.”
WGW23 Jesus “went to great pains to be as human as the guy down the street”. He went to synagogue though he didn’t need to study, and worked at carpentry though he didn’t need money.

Now we are hardly denying that God “knows” of all these things by the power of omniscience. However, there is very little justification for the premise that God is empathizing so deeply with even such trivialities as “impossible deadlines.” This has all the scent of a God remade in the image of a modern Westerner whose most stressful daily experience, on average , is deciding which gas station to patronize in order to save 3 cents a gallon. I am not saying that Lucado would deny God’s empathy with more serious issues. However, a God empathetic with trivia is a pure invention.

Lucado provides no Scriptural justification for this depth of “personal identification.” The most that can be justified, contextually, is that we are indeed to seek our identity in Christ, as he is our “ingroup” leader. (See more on this here.) The closest Lucado comes to a Scriptural justification is the fact noted above that Jesus went to synagogue, worked as a carpenter, and so on. However, in the agonstic setting of the ancient world, no one would have looked upon this as a way of Jesus “going to great pains to be human.” Rather, his attendance at synagogue, etc was a matter of meeting social expectations that would enable him to spread of his message and ministry. It was utilitarian, not empathetic.

God as companion and giver of personal attention. At TL12, Lucado dismisses those who have an idea of God as a “genie in a bottle,” a “sweet grandpa,” or a “busy dad” seen only on Sunday. However, elsewhere his commentary is full of indications of God as a “sweet grandpa” (or rather, father!) whose concern is to keep us company so we don’t get lonely or afraid:

GFA66 “He saw you in your Garden of Gethsemane – and he didn’t want you to be alone.”
TL110 “You may be facing debt, but you aren’t facing debt alone; the Lord is with you.” The same is also said regarding unemployment, marital struggles, etc.
WGW174 “God flirts with us. He tantalizes us. He romances us.”
CT82 “[The Holy Spirit] is like a father who walks hand in hand with his little child. The child knows he belongs to his daddy, his small hand happily lost in the large one…suddenly the father, moved by some impulse, swings his boy up into the air and into his arms and says, ‘I love you, Son.’ He puts a big kiss on the bubbly cheek, lowers the boy to the ground, and the two go on walking together.”
GFA90 (also IGG 174) “God is for you. Had he a calendar, your birthday would be circled.” 

Justification for this view is hardly less sparse than for the prior view, and rooted as well in misconception:
  • At GFA68-9, Lucado notes that Jesus referred to Judas as “friend” and says, “What Jesus saw in Judas as worthy of being called a friend, I can’t imagine. But I do know that Jesus doesn’t lie, and in that moment he saw something good in a very bad man.” Lucado has imported the modern meaning of “friend” into the text; in the ancient context, it meant rather one who was an ally in an ideological sense – and it is also quite likely a touch of sarcastic irony on the part of Jesus in that light, since Judas is doing precisely what a friend of that sort would not do. There is a similar misuse of the word “friend” and the phrase “face to face” in Exodus 33:11 at WGW179. Here Moses is simply recognized as the authorized broker of the covenant – not as God’s personal buddy.
  • At WGW24-5, Lucado says that Jesus went to the Cana wedding to have fun, not to turn water into wine (it was a “was a favor for his friends”). He goes on: “So, forgive me Deacon Drydust and Sister Somberheart. I’m sorry to rain on your dirge, but Jesus was a likeable fellow.” In this Lucado is not wrong to suppose that it is not a sin to enjoy jokes, or to have fun. But this episode in John 2 has nothing to do with “having fun”: An ancient village wedding meant that the whole village and family was invited as a matter of course; for Jesus to refuse the invitation would have been regarded as highly insulting, essentially wishing the bride and groom ill. In addition, it is clear that John regards the situation as providentially tailored for Jesus to perform his first public “sign”. Fun may have been had, but it would hardly have been foremost in anyone's mind as the reason to attend the wedding. In all of this I am not saying Jesus did not truly enjoy the festivities. However, this text is poorly used by Lucado to justify this point.
God as modern father. Lucado presses home texts that he supposes equate God with a father in the sense found in modern, Western family structures. His justification for this view is even more tenuous:
  • At GFA107-8 he equates the father in the story of the prodigal son with God, an error we discussed in the last E-Block.
  • At GFA125-6, he uses a story of a modern Jewish father – addressed as “abba” by his daughter -- who reined in his little girl who tried to cross a busy street alone; midway through the crossing, he lifted her up into his arms, and Lucado says that we need “[a]n abba who will hear when we call...take our hand when we’re weak…guide us through the hectic intersections of life…swing us up into his arms and carry us home.” As we have discussed in this issue, however, abba simply cannot be read this way. And of course, it does not occur to Lucado that the social world of the Bible is any different than the modern, Western world.
Other validations. There are other, miscellaneous texts Lucado appeals to for a view of God as very familiar:
The name texts.
  • TL13 – “God has told us his name. (How he must long to be close to us.)” In this, Lucado imports the modern idea of sharing names as a way to open friendship. In the Biblical world, however, a name was revealed in order to say something about character and nature of a person, and had nothing to do with wanting to be “close” to someone.
  • WGW2: Lucado uses Is. 49:16: “See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name; your walls are ever before me.” Initially, the reader might think this fits a quite familiar relationship with God, as the full context seems to say so back to verse 13: Sing out, O heavens, and rejoice, O earth, break forth into song, you mountains. For the LORD comforts his people and shows mercy to his afflicted. But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me." Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name; your walls are ever before me.
    However, we must be careful not to import modern ideas into such texts. The word “comfort” to us brings up images of soft blankets, warm food, and a fireplace setting where we are curled up with a cup of cocoa. For the ancient Israelite, however, “comfort” would have amounted to assurance of a year without having too little to eat, or not being subject to sickness, or having to worry about invasion. If anything, we ought to read “comfort” here in terms of not being subject, for example, to the Deuteronomic curses.
    It might also be argued that there is a comparison to a mother and her infant, so that this indicates closeness. However, the analogy does not compare God to the mother; rather, it is a sort of early qal vohmer: If the lesser is true, so is the greater. And the subject is not forgetting obligations – not personal closeness.
    The name on God’s hand thus does not indicate any sort of modern sense of familiarity, but rather, dedication to covenant. In a similar vein, Lucado misuses:
  • WGW199: Rev 2:17 – To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. Of this Lucado says, “Isn’t it incredible to think that God has saved a name just for you?” It is indeed incredible, but it does not have the significance Lucado ascribes to it. As noted above, a name revealed character and nature of a person. Here, the new name on the stone – which parallels the names of the tribes of Israel on the stones of the shoulders of the high priest (Ex. 28:9-12) – indicates participation in the covenant community.
Shepherd imagery. Lucado believes that the image of God as shepherd indicates a high level of familiarity. At TL26 he says the shepherd “lavished attention on the sheep day and night.” Really? As one who has done agricultural surveys which include a few sheep farms, I certainly have not seen any shepherd “lavishing” attention on his sheep – certainly not being friends with them, or having conversations with them. Lucado is far overstating the role of the shepherd, who as a whole is a passive guardian, and seldom interferes unless there is a serious threat.

In summary, we find Lucado’s presentation of God as far too familiar, and unjustified by the texts he makes use of. We will reserve further commentary for the end of this article.

Exegesis Errors
In this category, we are pleased to note that Lucado makes very few errors. He does offer several midrashic or homiletic expansions of texts: for example, at GFA49-5, the “come and see”of John 1:46, is expanded into meaning, “come see the works of Jesus in things like the rehabilitation of alcoholics.” I found only the following major issues of note otherwise:

GFA134: Lucado uses Mark 16:16 to justify a point, with no awareness of the issues surrounding the authenticity of that passage.
Lucado offers a frequent emphasis on grace apart from works, and this is well and proper. But he also emphasizes doing good works – and never resolves the apparent contradiction. He says nothing of works as the basis for rewards in heaven.
CT44: Lucado says, “What happened to Lazarus will happen to us.” He confuses Lazarus’ resuscitation with endtime resurrection in a glorified body.
And so, Lucado actually makes fewer mistakes with Scripture in this regard than most writers we have evaluated. This is actually surprising in that he seldom lists his sources, and when he does, they are never serious scholars, but rather inspirational writings. In IGG is the only exception: he offers reference to only one commentary, Morris’ work on Romans, but this is a secondary reference to a work by Stott. On the other hand, with the bulk of his work, again, consisting of anecdotes and jokes, perhaps he just doesn’t have as much opportunity to make these kinds of mistakes!

Unsatisfactory Answers
Like Swindoll, Lucado regrettably resorts to exceptionally unsatisfactory answers when there is a need to confront difficult questions.
  • TL92: To answer the question of what happens to those who die without hearing the Gospel, Lucado avoids the matter of hell and asks, “How do we know they didn’t repent at the last second?” He also notes 2 Peter 3:9, which speaks of God’s will that all be saved, and remarks, “And he usually gets what he wants.” Is Lucado suggesting universalism? How does he deal with clear indications that some are inevitably going to perdition (like Matthew 25)? Unfortunately, Lucado seems more intent on avoiding offense than tackling a hard question.
  • WGW37: Do we all hear the voice of God? Lucado does not follow the likes of Bevere and Stanley in claiming to have discussions with the Almighty, but he does opt for a too-easy answer for whether anyone does. Noting that we all have same Holy Spirit as apostles like Philip, Lucado notes that Acts says Phillip was spoken to by an angel. In plain language, the text cannot be read any other way than that Phillip heard a voice, and there is no genre-based reason to read the text otherwise. However, Lucado asks, “How do you know Philip did [hear a voice]?” – in essence evading the question of who gets revelation and why by arbitrarily downgrading Phillip’s revelation to the sort of subjective feeling anyone might get.
  • WGW54: Lucado, like Swindoll, verges on emergent when he says: “I’m not for watering down the truth or compromising the gospel. But if a fellow with a pure heart calls God Father, can’t I call that same man Brother? If God doesn’t make doctrinal perfection a requirement for family membership, should I?” Should he? Mormons and JWs would say that they have a pure heart, yet Lucado in one other place acknowledges that Mormonism contains false teaching. At the same time, most of the epistles include doctrinal correction. It seems fairly clear that right doctrine on certain points was one (not the only) “requirement for family membership.” Devotion is pointless if it is a devotion to the wrong object.
  • CT97ff: Lucado provides a thoroughly unsatisfactory answer to the problem of evil: “God’s ways are always right. They may not make sense to us. They may be mysterious, inexplicable, difficult, and even painful. But they are right.” As we have noted in other reports, this amounts to a rationalization. Relatedly, Lucado also makes some use of what we have called “parking space theology” in past reports, for example, at CT119, saying how God protects us: “A slanderous critic heading toward your desk is interrupted by a phone call. A burglar en route to your house has a flat tire. A drunk driver runs out of gas before your car passes his.”
We will save the last instance for our conclusion, as it offers a fitting way to round off our evaluation.

Lost Perspective
Perhaps the most disturbing rationalization offered by Lucado is at CT120, where Lucado says to those who have suffered: “Have bad things really happened to you? You and God may have different definitions of the word bad.” He notes that a middle schooler considers a pimple “bad” but his dad doesn’t. Is Lucado seriously suggesting that perhaps a bout with cancer is viewed by God as equivalent to a pimple? (This, note, from the perspective of a sufferer, not from that of God.)

Readers of past evaluations are aware by now that when a teacher like Lucado says something like, “God uses struggles to toughen our spiritual skin,” I view these as little more than pious rationalizations used to explain why God as Lucado sees Him – someone intimately involved in our lives – doesn’t seem intimately involved at times of suffering. My own view of the matter – which sees God contextually in terms of an ancient patron, not as remote as the deist God, but also not as micromanagerial as a Lucado would make Him out to be – resolves this issue in a matter that satisfies context, experience, and logic. The view of Lucado and other popular pastors we have seen does not. It cannot explain away the paradox of God’s intimate love (as they see it) versus suffering as it is now manifest. Lucado, et al can never reconcile visions of God as a daddy offering a helping hand across a busy street with the Christian who lies in a hospital ward racked with cancer.

I would make no issue of this, save that many have abandoned their faith precisely because they too cannot resolve this paradox. Others have decided that the best way to deal with the paradox is to ignore it and drown themselves in supposedly spiritual experiences, distracting themselves from the problems with a rousing praise chorus that never ends.

This leads to a comment in close. The modern addiction to emotional experiences which distract from the realities of life makes "therapeutic theology" books like Lucado’s, which soothe modern, Western psychological discomforts, obscene in a sense. Jesus has been hired out, as one of my readers said long ago, as “Dr. Phil with holes in his wrists.” I do not say that Lucado does this intentionally. I believe that he, like many popular pastors, simply does not have a sufficiently broad perception; they are locked into a narrow view of life as something in which we do all we can to avoid even the most minute displeasures, racing from one emotional fulfillment or enjoyment to the next, doing what work needs to be done in between so that we can settle down to another fulfillment or enjoyment as quickly as possible.

This is best illustrated in ES99-100, where Lucado tells of how he was turning down a speaking engagement for the sake of family time. What sort of time? A wedding? A funeral? A child’s graduation? Not at all: Rather, he speaks of how, had he taken that speaking engagement, he would have missed such earth-shaking events as his daughter climbing into an inner tube for the first time. “There are a hundred speakers who could have addressed that crowd, but my girls just have one daddy,” he affirms. Oh? But don’t each of those hundred speakers have children or family as well, for which they are the “only one” to their own family? How would it be if each of them turned down the responsibility of a teacher for the sake of such trivialities as this?

Modern Christianity has lost an eternal perspective, trading it in for the wonder of the Now – and I regret to say that Lucado merely encourages it.

1 comment:

  1. If you think Lucado is bad you should read Kyle Idleman’s book “Not a Fan”. The whole first half of the book is about “defining the relationship” with Jesus, just as romantic partners do. He asks readers, “Is Jesus just a weekend fling for you or is He your one and only?” I almost threw up in my mouth when I read that. He also, of course, talks about falling in love with Jesus, flirting with Jesus, and encourages us to not “cohabitate with Jesus”. He commits the common fallacy of interpreting “Yada” as meaning explicitly to know someone sexually, and concludes from that, that God wants to know us on the same level of intimacy (again importing modern ideas of intimacy).

    I wonder also if this overfamiliarity with God is affecting how Christians view other relationships. I’ve noticed many of my Christian brothers and sisters following a bizarre logic that goes something like; I’m going to fast today and isolate myself from others in order to get closer to God, God desires me to get closer to Him, therefore, he’ll allow me to fast and achieve solitude without difficulty for He has prepared these good deeds beforehand, that I should walk in them. Its reverse is something more like parking space theology, if God wants me to give to this homeless person, he will give me 20 dollars in cash to do so. It would seem both lines of reasoning lead to absurd conclusions and also have influenced modern atheism a great deal. I see why you then you think believing God to be too personal is so dangerous and damaging.