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Friday, October 11, 2013

To Prophesy Or To Slander, That Is The Church's Problem

Joe Carter (see TGC and Acton bios) teaches journalism and writes for The Gospel Coalition Blog as well as the blog for The Acton Institute.  The blog post his that we will be reviewing here is called, Stop Slandering Christ's Bride. We will also be using at least one of his comments that helps clarify what he tried to say in the post. 

Carter has a problem with those who make certain kinds of criticisms made about the Church. He identifies three steps such people take when they do far more than provide constructive criticisms, they slander the Church. The first step is rather ordinary, it involves pointing to a subject or problem that Christians think about. The second step is to claim that nobody else is addressing the issue. The third step is to assume to have authority and say why must voice an opinion on the issue. It is obvious that these steps should raise red flags only when all three are followed. And what we apparently have as a result is more than just a person with delusions of grandeur, we have who one is slandering the Church because claims made from taking those three steps can't possibly be true.

To get further clarification on what concerns Carter here, one must read his response to Arthur Sido's comment. Sido understood Carter's objection to assuming a position of authority, like claiming to be a prophet, as equating the mere act of speaking out with assuming to be a prophet. Carter tried to clarify what he meant by assuming to have authority, such as that of a prophet,  by saying that he was speaking against those who act as if God appointed them as the sole person to address an issue. Sido went on to complain that calling the Church, "Christ's Bride," was a way to silence its critics. 

Then Sido made a statement that Carter agreed with in saying that one can note faults in "our religious institution, traditions, and cultures" without denouncing the Bride of Christ. 

Finally, Sido complained that Carter's post seemed to be a continuation of some in calling for the punishment of those who are trying to make the Church accountable. Carter tried to clarify to whom he was objecting by saying that call for punishment is already being used on those who make "universal denunciations," that is saying there are no churches address a said issue, especially since such assertions are false.

It appears that some could easily read Carter as describing religious, self-made demagogues whose niche is his or her complaint about the whole Church. But since Carter admitted to having practiced all three steps himself at times, it is not quite clear about whom Carter is referring except he was admitting to just making false statements about the Church.

So where do we go from here? We go to a chapter called "The Crisis In Contemporary American Religion" from the book, The Cornel West Reader. For here West claims there is a failure in all of American religiosity to maintain a prophetic voice. Here, West lists Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam as the culprits. By not maintaining a prophetic voice, West is citing these religions with failing to call the political and cultural status quo to repentance. Rather than challenging the current system to change, American religions have accommodated the status quo by surrendering to an idolatry of the "privatism" and "careerism" that is so much a part of the American culture. Therefore, the message that American religions preach and practice is one of "existential emptiness and political irrelevance."

Now the question becomes, is Cornel West one of those "prophets" whom Carter is warning us about? Is Cornel West a religious demagogue or a slanderer of the Church whom we listen to at our own peril? Please note here that Carter has not said anything specific about West. We are simply using the criteria Carter listed in the blogpost we are reviewing.

Now, whereas Carter's first step is pointing to a problem that Christians react to, West goes farther than and different from that. Instead of singling out a specific sin or issue, West is drawing our attention to something broader. West is saying that we have to preach against the current system by which our society operates. So it isn't enough for us Christians to point to a specific sin regardless of the sin, we must speak against the culture or society as a whole.

The next step, or perhaps warning sign, regards whether West said that no Churches are addressing this. We don't hear West say that. Rather, he says that American religions are losing their ability to speak prophetically. He says that Americas religions are trading in their integrity by abstaining from speaking truth to power in defense of the vulnerable for the porridge of all that serves the self by sanctifying "consumerism," "narcissism," and even "hedonism."

Finally, is West taking on the mantle of being an OT prophet in complaining about America's religions? By saying that all religions in America have failed to continue to do what has been done in the past by people like Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel, and Martin Luther King Jr., he certainly seems to playing the part for he regards such people as having communicated a prophetic vision.

So is Cornel West someone we should be wary of according to Carter's criteria? It is a possibility by Carter's criteria. But what if we examined Carters' concerns to see if the warning signs he alerts us to are valid. We should first note that many religions have demagogues and the first priority of these demagogues and even slanderers is to serve themselves at the expense of others. And when it comes to being served, especially with recognition and loyalty, such people hate competition and that competition. 

The first step that demagogues and slanderers take is the first step that those who speak the truth take as well, that is to take an issue about which Christians are concerned. So after the first step, we can't judge West less we willing to throw out all good with the bad. 

Carter's next step of concern is when a person claims that no Churches are addressing the concern.  Now this is an odd step because if taken literally, it makes it rather easy to identify demagogues and slanderers because hardly anyone makes such a claim. But what about the person who speaks generally, noting that there are exceptions to the rule? Or what about the person who is speaking from their personal experiences with the Church? Or is this criteria a valid concern anyway especially if the person is right? Thus, this criteria must be used in conjunction with the third one for it to serve as a red flag.

Finally, what if the person is proclaiming oneself to have the position of Old Testament prophet, should that trigger an alarm?  Realizing that, in the Old Testament, those who opposed the prophets were those who opposed God and there was no room for discussion back then. Oppose the prophets and experience the wrath was the order of the day in the Old Testament. So is West doing that by speaking against all of America's religions? 

Note, if you can, who West was identifying as the prophets in the chapter we are commenting on. It included Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel, and Martin Luther King Jr. Were these people warning about the wrath that was to if what they said was ignored? Yes. But here are a couple of differences between them and the Old Testament prophets. While the Old Testament prophets warned how they were God's special messengers whose job was to tell the people about the anger of a jealous God who was dealing with an adulterous people, today's prophets are warning about the natural catastrophes that will follow the continuation of systemic sins. Another difference is that instead of claiming to be infallible because what they were doing was merely repeating what was supernaturally revealed by God, many of today's prophets are speaking, with varying degrees of accuracy, to warn of horrible natural consequences that can be rationally and morally determined by principles, facts and logic. 

In other words, the prophetic tradition to which West is appealing automatically asks us to react like the Berean Jews in Acts 17. When they heard the preaching of the Gospel, they thoroughly examined what was said. Those acting in such a tradition are not assuming to be demagogues for they are not seeking to control the vertical and horizontal of our minds. And as for being slanderers, they ask us to first examine the facts and logic to see if what their warnings makes sense.

So here is the issue. Whenever religion bows down to a sinful status quo, the people wander in darkness. And the religious leaders who enable this effort just might be worse than the demagogues about whom Carter is trying to warn us. There are few if any voices pointing to the light when this occurs. Those prophets who do point to the light may even follow all three steps that Carter warns us about in the blog post we have been reviewing. And if after checking off each step we write these prophetic voices off, we will be like Old Testament Israel and Judah when they ignored the prophets who spoke the revealed word of God in that we will meet our demise because we ignored warnings. Of course, the difference between the Old Testament prophets and the prophets of today is that while the Old Testament prophets appealed to supernatural acts and God's revelation, today's prophets are pointing to morals, facts, and logic. Their very message implies that we examine what is said to see what is true and what should be discarded. And if we fail to seriously listen to today's prophets, we will be judged guilty of both supporting a sinful status quo and not caring enough to think because we wanted to follow the crowd. 

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