The Colloquial, the Casual, and the Crafted

Those who call for ‘authenticity’, ‘realness’, and ‘sincerity’, are not always sure what they mean, if you press them for a definition. Some mean honesty, some others mean integrity, both of which are virtues the Bible commends and commands. But some of those calling for authenticity are really calling for a removal of formality from worship, communication, and life in general. Things formal are considered posed and vain, and therefore less than real. (Of course, objecting to what is supposedly posed and vain is a tad rich when coming from the take-a-selfie-and-edit-the-photo generation, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.) People like this believe that any move towards informality is a move towards honesty and openness. Casualness in dress, colloquialism in speech, and the absence of structure means everyone is being more spontaneous and ‘authentic’. Notice how many church websites advertise their meetings by promising a ‘relaxed atmosphere’, as if other churches are deliberately seeking a tense atmosphere. What these churches are really doing is agreeing that whatever feels formal (and therefore unspontaneous and perhaps unfamiliar) has no place in ‘authentic’ worship, and that the more familiar and casual it seems, the more it is ‘connecting’, and ‘real’.

A few years ago, a book came out that, in my opinion, made some remarkable observations.
Doing Our Own Thing (with the sub-title The Degradation of Music and Language and Why We Should, Like, Care) is written by John McWhorter, who, to my knowledge, makes no claim to be a Christian. McWhorter uses examples of letters, speeches, and debates to point to a major shift in our culture. He shows that until recently, most cultures have spoken in two voices. One voice is the everyday, conversational street language, with its slang, colloquialisms, repetition, and impreciseness. Everyday conversation includes a lot of hedging (“like”, “sort of”, “kind of like”, “y’know”), grammatical mistakes, and colloquial expressions. McWhorter has no complaint about this (nor do I), and documents historical examples of how the language on the street or in the kitchen has always been one voice that the culture uses.

The other voice is the voice used for speeches, written prose, sermons, and even letters. This form is eloquent, refined, precise, and polished. It is a tone of carefully-crafted words, adopted for specific occasions. It is quite remarkable to read the letters written by Civil War soldiers to their loved ones at home. The same men who would be speaking in perhaps a coarse and ragged manner on the battlefield would write home in tones of surprising eloquence and literary polish. Clearly, nineteenth-century men did not think that it was hypocrisy to use two different tones for different purposes and different audiences.

McWhorter shows, using examples of speeches and letters, that the tone of formal oratory and prose has been tending towards the conversational and colloquial since the 1960s. Speeches by senators in the 40s and in the early 2000s are markedly different. The formal tone is disappearing almost completely from our society. McWhorter suggests that the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s enshrined informality, and turned the wider culture against any form of artifice. Language that is carefully written, artfully constructed, and poetic in quality has come to be viewed as inauthentic, staged, and one more attempt by some intellectuals to lord it over the common man. Sincerity, authenticity, keeping it real, is represented by an off-the-cuff, everyday style in speaking and writing. Once again, McWhorter is not raging against the conversational language we all use. He is asking why those domains where language used to put on its Sunday best now prefer that it be in beach-clothes.

This has major implications for Christians, and for Christian leaders. When we consider the prayers of the psalms, are these colloquial, conversational prayers, or are they eloquently written? Undoubtedly, David spoke to his soldiers in everyday language, but when he addressed God in poetry, and particularly when representing the nation in prayer, he adopted an elevated tone. Or consider, are the sermons of Scripture, such as the book of Hebrews, informal ‘chats’, or are they carefully written examples of rhetoric? Remove the tone of eloquent address from a culture, and you have hamstrung it from reverent worship.

To turn again to Richard Weaver, we find a gem of insight in this statement: “Unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance”. To put it another way, when people wish to express themselves in the tone of carefulness and reverence (as worship certainly requires), their expression needs the guidance of form. Speeches need introductions, propositional statements, main points, illustrations, supporting arguments, conclusions and an elevated vocabulary. Poetry needs a particular metre, rhyme scheme, line length, metaphor and other devices. Whatever the device used for human expression, it has a form that such expression must be poured into, like water into a mould. Apart from the mould, water will simply splatter randomly on the floor.

Weaver is suggesting that human expression is just like that. Remove the artifices of form (which the formal tone of address requires), and human expression tends towards ignorance, which is exactly why the casual and colloquial tone is not where we find the clearest thought or the deepest insight. If the thoughts and sentiments of people are never channelled by the discipline of formal speech or poetry, they tend to become disorganised, disparate, and, in a word, chaotic. And chaos does not enlighten or educate anyone, nor it is more real, authentic, or sincere. Think: the unprepared extemporaneous preacher, the painful testimony time monopolised by one long-winded and imprecise person, the rambling and circuitous public prayer, and ‘what this verse means to me’ Bible studies. Ironically, when churches tolerate or foster this kind of thing in the name of sincerity and authenticity, the fog of ignorance and vacuousness of thought that grows is doing the very opposite of getting to the heart of things, or increasing ‘transparency’, ‘realness’, and authenticity.

In my own life, I have experienced the difference it has made to recognise and practice these two tones. During the day, I cannot pray as succinctly or concisely as I might like, so my prayer is made up of momentary phrases, short observations, even unarticulated sentiments – a lot more conversational and colloquial, without, I hope, being irreverent. But in times of private devotion, I have found that a short, carefully worded, ‘prayer of address’ is far more helpful to thoughtful worship, than a lot of rambling conversational prayer and consequent wandering of mind. Like a letter, such a prayer cannot be long, for most of us cannot sustain that kind of precision for very long. But the clarity, reverence, and, ironically, sincerity it brings has been very helpful to me. This also explains why Christians have often written down some of their prayers, because they are artfully-composed addresses to God. No one writes down his conversational impromptu prayers, nor have the sermons of ramblers been recorded for posterity.

Similarly in corporate worship, well-written hymns, well-thought-out prayers, well-crafted sermons and other well-prepared aspects of corporate worship are not acts of hypocrisy, posturing, or quenching the Spirit. They respect form, and use it for beauty, reverence, and precise expression. Where form is respected and steadily explained, it not only shapes our expression, it further refines it. Long-term exposure to well-formed expression has a maturing effect on our own. Our minds start to think in those forms. We find ourselves praying better prayers. Our spontaneous testimonies are more succinct, and more edifying. Our extemporaneous teaching has substance. But when we adopt only the colloquial tone for our corporate worship, we will end up losing not only the thoughtfulness and beauty of the elevated tone, but coherence and substance in the conversational tone also.

Christians would do well to oppose the counter-culture’s emphasis on informality as authenticity. Our own Bible is a formal document, obeying literary forms, and giving us examples of worship that followed such forms. It is time to realise that the use of artifice does not mean we are artificial, that when we adorn our speech, we are not necessarily disguising our meaning, and that when we prepare our expressions, we have not evacuated them of heartfelt sentiment. In fact, like the Psalms, our best expressions of worship, and therefore our most authentic responses to Him, will be those we carefully craft.

What Titus Found in the Most Holy

When Titus attacked Jerusalem in 66-70 A.D., before ordering the Temple’s destruction, he entered the Most Holy Place to see for himself what was really hidden behind that veil. He found, to his dismay, nothing, besides the Mercy Seat. There was “nothing there”.

Titus is like many modern Christians, intoxicated with the idea of ‘sincerity’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘realness’. These Christians similarly wish to strip away what they call “masks”, remove what they consider inauthentic, or even phony, so that we can get at the real reality. You’ll hear them speak about the ‘curse of religiosity’, about people ‘hiding behind traditions’.

What are these masks, in their opinion? Usually, it is any kind of (older) custom, ritual, tradition or form. If something doesn’t seem to be transparent to the mind, colloquial in expression, informal or casual in approach, it seems opaque to their impatient desire for immediate comprehension. They reason that if something is slowing you down when it comes to perception, it must be a deliberate attempt to obscure, befuddle, or even lord it over you. The keep-it-real man is almost always a populist, suspicious of what is not easily perceivable. And if there is an easier, more casual, more informal way of saying the same thing, they conclude that every instance of formalism is some kind of posturing, some desire to be aloof and make it more difficult than it has to be.

It could be a dress code for the pulpit. It could be singing songs with exalted language. It could be preaching in a dignified manner, or even from behind an elevated pulpit. It could be architecture that represents classical Christian ideas. It could be following a set order of service. It could be hymns with dense lyrics, or unfamiliar melodies. It could be a more formal prayer to God.

But for the authenticity hound, this is smoke and mirrors. For him, formal language, formal orders of service, formal approaches to God, chivalry, manners and customs are moves towards unreality. He suspects that the Christians and the leaders doing these things refuse to ‘be themselves’. After all, he has spoken to them outside of Sunday services, and they are ‘normal’, then. So, what can all this be, except an act of some kind? How could the same man adopt two different modes of speech for different occasions? Isn’t that the mark of an actor?

The reason the authenticity hound concludes these things is that he has been inculturated by the counter-culture. He believes the more immediate and unrehearsed the self-expression, the more honest it must be. Rehearsed, planned, or formal expression involves forethought, and is therefore guilty-on-sight of calculating posturing. To him, spontaneous expression prevents insincerity from intruding because it just expels out the mouth whatever is on the mind – there is no time to rehearse. This is supposedly the mark of the honest – those willing to be ‘vulnerable’, transparent’, ‘out there’.

Of course, this would make the poetry of David an exercise in faked piety, because poetry is almost never spontaneous. It would make the Lord’s Prayer an exercise in masks, because it is known and rehearsed. It would make the Bible itself less-than-authentic, for every book was carefully written following a literary form.

What the sincerity-junkie cannot see is that there are reasons for formality other than posturing, hypocrisy or evasion. A suit and tie at a funeral, a wedding-dress and vows at a wedding, opening a door for a lady, using titles for people in authority, table manners, an eloquent love-letter, or a poem are not exercises in deception. They are the ways we “dress-up” physical reality to signify greater realities. A form may not be hiding reality, it may in fact be clothing it with beauty and significance. That is, formality is often a way of improving something ordinary, adorning it with beauty, so that we now see something more than just the physical thing. We see what it represents, what it envisions. We see man made in God’s image, not merely physical man of the dust.

Though his writing is dense, I heartily recommend reading this extended quote by Richard Weaver. Writing in the 40s, Weaver perfectly defines and explains the motives of the Realness Police:

“We turn our attention to a kind of barbarism appearing in our midst and carrying unmistakable power to disintegrate. This threat is best described as the desire of immediacy, for its aim is to dissolve the formal aspects of everything and to get at the supposititious reality behind them. It is characteristic of the barbarian, whether he appears in a precultural stage or emerges from below into the waning day of a civilization, to insist upon seeing a thing “as it is.” The desire testifies that he has nothing in himself with which to spiritualize it; the relation is one of thing to thing without the intercession of imagination. Impatient of the veiling with which the man of higher type gives the world imaginative meaning, the barbarian and the Philistine, who is the barbarian living amid culture, demands the access of immediacy. Where the former wishes representation, the latter insists upon starkness of materiality, suspecting rightly that forms will mean restraint…

The member of a culture, on the other hand, purposely avoids the relationship of immediacy; he wants the object somehow depicted and fictionized, or, as Schopenhauer expressed it, he wants not the thing but the idea of the thing. He is embarrassed when this is taken out of its context of proper sentiments and presented bare, for he feels that this is a reintrusion of that world which his whole conscious effort has sought to banish. Forms and conventions are the ladder of ascent. And hence the speechlessness of the man of culture when he beholds the barbarian tearing aside some veil which is half adornment, half concealment. He understands what is being done, but he cannot convey the understanding because he cannot convey the idea of sacrilege. His cries of aheste profani are not heard by those who in the exhilaration of breaking some restraint feel that they are extending the boundaries of power or of knowledge.

Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom…Barbarism and Philistinism cannot see that knowledge of material reality is a knowledge of death. The desire to get ever closer to the source of physical sensation-this is the downward pull which puts an end to ideational life.” – Ideas Have Consequences

Sincerely Amused

It’s a supreme irony, or perhaps a sad blindness, that the present generation is supposedly in love with ‘authenticity’, ‘sincerity’, and ‘keeping it real’. After all, we’ve been doing everything but that for nearly a century. As Neil Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we took a medium designed for amusing spectacle – theatre – and used technology to turn it into the dominant medium of our time. First film, then television, and now the web, have transformed the most serious moments of life into forms of amusement to be watched by a popcorn-eating crowd. Politics has gone from thoughtful debate watched by patient and intelligent crowds, into a cage-fight, with commentators, bookies, and sound-bytes made for TV and the web. The Courts have become reality-TV sideshows for us to laugh at the sassy judge’s replies. Warfare has become a televised sportsmatch, with blow-by-blow commentators and action replays. Counselling has become a bizarre exercise in voyeuristic curiosity, as we hear strangers’ problems, and watch the psychologist untangle other people’s messed-up lives. Education has become films of amusing characters, fun computer games, and amusing activities that suit each one’s “learning style”.

The most serious, or sincere part of our TV experience is supposed to be ‘the News’, where men and women in suits and corporate-wear speak in sober monotones to “give us the facts”. Stories of human suffering, terror and tragedy are literally sold to us as a thirty-minute product paid for by advertisers, and consequently filled with stories that scare, enrage, or excite – the kind that garner viewers or listeners. No one notices the weird incongruity when we go from hearing about chemical warfare in Syria to fun commercials advertising cosmetics, diapers, cars and insurance. (Imagine King Nebuchadnezzar in his throne room receiving word of enemies coming from the west, and every few moments, a court jester running in singing, showing off something from Babylon’s market.) With the recent political shenanigans and the hysterical ‘news media’ that accompanied it, some of the makeup is beginning to drip off this pig. People are beginning to realise that ‘the News’ was always a sideshow masquerading as serious conversation, flattering our view of ourselves as thoughtful people, where in reality we were drawn in by the amusement of alarmism, and sold to advertisers. Nothing really sincere or authentic about all this.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that we should land up with Reality TV. When serious information is just one more show, we start pining for something without actors. Supposedly setting up a camera in a home, or on an island, or in a car, will make the ‘story’ more interesting, more ‘real’. Actually, it’s a sign of the law of diminishing returns. Once those shows that only mimic life no longer scratch the itch, we want life itself to be the show. Note, the move to reality television is not people wanting reality; this is people wanting reality-as-entertainment.

With the ubiquity of screens, cameras and social media, we’re all now in a reality show. So we have reached the place where people film themselves in a place or performing some activity, and only really enjoy the moment when it’s played back on a screen to them, or placed online. It’s as if the screen has become a priest, a mediator. We can no longer get at life through our five senses, we must film ourselves and then live vicariously through the act of watching ourselves again. Spectacle has become our perception of reality, and we even need to be spectators of our own actions. We cannot even enjoy the simple and the mundane on our own, we must publicise it for the entertainment of others on some social media platform, and only when they comment or ‘like’ or smiley-face it, do we feel validated. We have to entertain others or be entertained to even feel that such moments were real. Entertainment is no longer what people do when not engaged in work, it has become their means of perception, their source of identity, their very experience of reality.

So what should we make of all these cries for ‘authenticity’, ‘sincerity’, and ‘reality’? On the one hand, they are clearly preposterous. People gorging themselves on junk food are not yet serious when they talk about health, and people immersed in amusement are not yet serious when they talk about the real world. On the other hand, there is in them probably a true longing for something other than life-as-amusement, being ignorant of what it might be. When people are feeling bored with life, worn out by images, de-sensitised to shock-value, they aren’t sure if they need another shot of entertainment, or an emetic.

I’ve heard it said that millennials are particularly relational because of their social-media savvy. That, in turn, makes them more ‘authentic’ in relationships. If that means they actually spend time with people, put their phones away, stop instagramming and snapchatting every moment, look up from their screens and have meaningful conversations with the other person two metres away from them, then I’d agree. If not, then they are the natural descendants and logical consequence of a twentieth-century generation that made amusement its goal in life, only now its kids get to carry that once-bulky TV in their pocket, and watch it at every available moment. When I was a kid, we at least had the social experience of fighting over the remote. If self-absorption behind a TV has been succeeded by self-absorption while lost in social-media, not much has improved. In fact, the illusion of relationships taking place through these screens has only made the alienation from others more severe.

In truth, behind the lust for the amusement of spectacle is a profound selfishness, and even a narcissism. When seeking amusement, I do not seek to give, to share, to bless, or to grow. I seek only the merest titillation of myself. When this is the dominant form of cultural life, you are dealing with the most loveless generation to see the sun.

We can never become serious about ‘being authentic’ until we are willing to abandon entertainment as our mode of worship, communication, or education. Until we see that the spectacles we use to view the world have become screens, we will no longer notice the ubiquity of them. (I once went into a sports-themed restaurant, and counted around twenty screens from where I was sitting – I was told there were more. And the patrons still had their own screens on their tables in their phones and tablets. At what point do we call this a kind of madness, or sickness?)

If we really desire to “do life”, to “be authentic”, to “keep it real”, it begins by repenting of slavery to the god of entertainment, confessing that we have looked to it for life. We should repent that we have wished that worship, marriage, parenting, work, and obedience could be mediated to us through the mode of passive amusement. To put it another way, we should repent that we have kept ourselves at the centre of our lives, and loved our own amusement more than God or neighbour. The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works, and being real begins with turning away from the narcissistic insincerity of entertainment as the mainstay of our lives.

Ten Mangled Words – “Authentic”

Few words roll off the modern tongue as readily or as frequently as the family of words associated with authenticAuthenticityreal, sincere and intentional are like newly-minted gold for the Millennial tongue. Most previous generations of humans would have looked at you with furrowed eyebrows and pained expressions of confusion, had you greeted them with the line, “Keep it real, bro!”

Only a narcissistic generation would imagine that it had stumbled upon the meaning of authenticity, and that those that went before them were hopelessly mired in inauthentic, fake, insincere ways of life. But Xers, Yers and Millennials can barely contain their glee at how real they’re keepin’ it.

We buy Fair-Trade coffee, eat organic, listen to indie music, practice yoga, post online testimonials, blog about ourselves and our ‘struggles’, take natural medicines, wear mass-produced jeans distressed to appear “vintage,”, seek out pristine vacation spots, and one of the highest compliments we can pay someone is to say “he seems really sincere”.

This has bled into the church, with its own manifestations: accountability groups, informality in worship, a general suspicion of formality and tradition as insincere, a therapeutic approach to ministry, and seeking very different emotional experiences in corporate worship.

Of course, the culture is not aiming at nothing when it makes authenticity its goal, however blurry its general eyesight might be. In a consumer culture, we are bombarded with advertisements and marketing that is the very opposite of truthfulness. A consumer culture lives on fakery, exaggeration, hype, and artificially created discontent. At some point, a kind of fatigue sets in with all the attempts to charm us out of our pocketbook, and authenticity-hunting becomes a kind of consolation, that we haven’t been duped by it all.

Similarly, the Bible has much to say about phoniness and hypocrisy. From Moses to Paul, the Bible condemns religion that is a mere facade for an unchanged heart. A hypocrite, in Greek culture, was literally a stage-actor, and the word came to describe those who maintain religious exteriors for the sake of pleasing man, gaining money or power, or otherwise. Heart-religion is indeed a Scriptural concern, and all the more reason to rescue authentic from its mangled misrepresentations.

To do so, quite a bit of rust needs to be scraped off these words. First, we’ll need to rescue formalism from the accusation that it is insincere, or the corollary that informality and casualness is the natural state of sincerity. Second, we’ll need to distinguish between sincerity and emotion. Third, we’ll need to restore the difference between Scriptural honesty and the modern therapeutic model of counselling, and critique the idea that one’s natural thoughts and feelings are truthful, and should be shared.

Christians and Critical Judgements

Most Christians are happy to accept the authority of expert opinion. What is instructive to note is which domains of knowledge they are comfortable to refer to experts, as opposed to those in which they actively oppose expert opinion. To paraphrase what I wrote to one commenter, Christians are happy to listen to experts when they are biologists or geologists, and the topic is creationism/evolution. Christians are happy to turn to experts when they are neurologists and the topic is depression and the use of anti-depressants. The expert opinion that these men will bring, when submitting their findings to the principles of Scripture, is deemed helpful – and rightly so. For some reason, when the topic is the more critical judgements of art, the experts are disparagingly called “gatekeepers” or “elitists” or said to be “keeping out the unwashed, and allowing in the pure.”

Why is this so? I have no way of proving this, but I suspect many Christians have embraced the ‘double-storey’ view of truth. Immanuel Kant is really the central culprit here. He taught that human knowledge comes in two separate layers, or floors. The lower floor we might call “scientific” or rational knowledge. It’s the kind of knowledge we can work out using mathematics or measure with scientific experiments. The upper floor we might call “moral” or intuitive knowledge, and it refers to religious beliefs, morals, and judgements about beauty. Kant believed that only the lower-storey could be known with certainty, through empirical observation. The upper-storey was “impossible to know, but morally necessary to suppose”. What that translates to in the contemporary situation is the idea that science delivers hard facts, while art delivers neutral material which obtains only “personal” judgements, variable from subject to subject.

Christians seem to believe this. They believe we need experts to fight infection in the body, build aeroplanes, and program software – because this kind of knowledge is, to them at least, entirely “objective”. But determining if a song is sensual, if a poem’s rhythm is comical, if a film is subversive to Christian affections is no longer a matter of collecting empirical facts, and must then be “subjective”, a term which in their parlance usually means “arbitrary in meaning”. Of course, if this is so, an expert in these areas is not only an impossible vocation (for how can one person’s judgement be authoritative if no authoritative, universal judgement is possible), such a person becomes preposterous – like having a colour-inspector tell you if your interior decoration is lawful or not.

But Kant’s dichotomy is open to challenge, and few strict Kantians exist anymore. What Christians need to embrace is the truth that while judgements about music and art are indeed of a different kind to those of maths and science, they are all still judgements. All knowledge is a matter of judgement and interpretation, even the manipulation of numbers, or the direct observation of the universe. It is all performed by subjects, and in that sense, all knowledge is ‘subjective’. The difference between a judgement of art and one of science is not that one is exterior and the other interior, or the one discoverable and the other mystically unknowable. The real difference is that aesthetic, moral, religious knowledge is knowledge that pertains to persons, and so the judgement requires a more careful, critical judgement.

Ethical and aesthetical judgements are difficult. It’s easier to work out the circumference of a circle than it is to determine how Christians smuggling Bibles into a country should deal with the border agents. Such an ethical judgement is hard, but not impossible. It calls for the combined thinking of many Christians on the topics of truthfulness, governmental authority, civil disobedience, conflicting obligations and questions of greater goods and lesser evils. It’s a critical judgement.

Judging art and beauty requires a similarly critical judgement. Such judgement requires a thoughtful examination of form, and of the materials used in the art form. It requires knowledge of the symbols and metaphors within a culture. It usually requires historical knowledge, understanding the “conversation” that has taken place within the culture, so that it can place the work within that conversation. The critic, if he is doing is job, is not “forcing his preference” on us, nor is he “criticising” the work, in the sense of tearing it down. He is explaining meaning to us, using his knowledge of the form, his knowledge of history, and his own sense of perception. He should not tell us what we could not, with the right tools, see ourselves; that is, he is not some kind of mediator interpreting a language that no one else can understand. Nevertheless, he ought to possess a superior knowledge of art, and enough experience and insight to help us see more, and become better judges ourselves.

Certainly we live in an era when we lack a living tradition, and we feel more cut off from meaning in art than most generations before us probably ever did. In this atmosphere, we need critics more than ever, while suspecting rightly that the wrong critics have more power to mislead than ever. The solution is not to retreat to Kantian notions of the impossibility of knowing beauty. The solution is to choose critics immersed in the Western and Christian tradition. Unless we believe moral, religious, and aesthetic judgements are all arbitrary, it is entirely permissible and indeed, necessary, to turn to authorities in these areas, to help shape our judgements.

Authority, Soul Competence and Vocation

Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer are two sides of one doctrine that Baptists cherish. Indeed, they make up part of the matrix known as the Baptist distinctives. Soul competence teaches that individual Spirit-indwelt believers can read and understand Scripture for themselves, using the means He has given. The priesthood of the believer means that every individual believer in Christ can approach God directly through the High Priestly work of Christ. Whether we are dealing with the Word or prayer, a New Testament believer is not dependent on human intermediaries between himself and God. The work of salvation is so thorough a work that if a Christian makes right use of the Spirit’s appointed means, he lacks nothing to worship God directly.

Unfortunately, these doctrines are easily misunderstood, or misapplied. When populism is part of the cultural air we breathe, such misunderstandings become almost inevitable. The most infantile of these misunderstandings is the person who opts for ‘home-church’, or Internet-church, or some other excuse to be anti-ecclesiological, and reject authority. Here the person dismisses the need for corporate worship, instruction by pastors, service to the body, or shared life in Christ, all in the name of the believer’s priesthood. Such abuses of the doctrine are easily spotted and easily refuted.

A more subtle form of this misunderstanding is the believer who thinks that if God has granted direct access to His presence, and an ability to understand Scripture, then anything worth knowing is within the immediate intellectual grasp of every believer. The logic is arguing from the apparently greater to the apparently lesser: if knowing the greatest thing – the Gospel – is open to even a little child, then there cannot be lesser things worth knowing which are harder to understand. Emerging from this attitude will be the populist suspicion of philosophy, of theology, of disciplines of thought, of advanced studies, of intellectuals and of academia in general.

The mistake the populist imports into his theological method is to assume that there is a proportional relationship between clarity and importance: the more important something is, the clearer it must be, and the less important, the more difficult it may be to understand. Were we to consistently embrace this view, we would have to conclude that the doctrines of the Trinity, hypostatic union, and election are of minor importance due to their difficulty. In reality, crucial doctrine is often enough not simple or even perspicuous.

The correct approach is to recognise that nearly everything worth knowing has multiple levels of deepening complexity and sophistication. A five-year-old can grasp substitution in the Gospel, and simultaneously doctors in theology may give themselves to decades of studying its meaning. These levels of complexity apply whether we are speaking of biblical doctrines, mathematics, the natural sciences, history, music, the arts, or any area of knowledge in God’s created order. This naturally invites the question, “But how much of this complexity do we need to know?”

God has so made the world and limited man that we each need to specialise in some domain of human life. We need some to give themselves to knowing the human physiology, so as to become experts in medicine and healing. We need some to give themselves to the physics of motion, so as to become engineers. We need some to give themselves to understanding the market, so as to become experts in economics. And we need some to give themselves to the study of music, painting, poetry, literature and architecture, so as to become experts in the arts. No one can master all the realms of knowledge in the short lifespan appointed to us. It is one of God’s mercies to the world: forcing interdependence, trade, and learning.

This is the doctrine of vocation. God calls and equips humans to function well in some area of human life, to bring order and meaning to some section of the created order (1 Cor 7:20-21). Not only so, but God invests His world with meanings, laws, ‘secrets’, which become the duty of man to learn, master and teach others (Prov 25:2).

The answer to the question, “how much of this complexity do we need to know?” is answered by the doctrine of vocation. If you are a doctor, you need to be an expert on health, since that is your calling. If you are not a doctor, you need to know enough about health to stay reasonably healthy, and you need to know when to consult a medical expert. We don’t sneer at doctors and call them elitists; we are thankful that when our basic competence in health and medicine can take us no further, there are experts to do just that. The same is true for engineering, financial planning, software development. And buckle your seatbelt – the same is true for theology, music, poetry and literature.

Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer does not remove the need for pastors, nor for professional theologians. Similarly, the fact that every individual Christian can lift his or her voice in sincere praise does not remove the need for art critics, composers or poets.

In the end, I have never met a consistent populist. I have never met the man who was willing to do surgery on himself, act as a lawyer for every one of his contractual agreements, and write his own software. He is usually selectively populist: sneering at theologians, composers, critics, pastors, but happy to accept expert opinion in other areas of his life. If he would accept the doctrine of vocation, he could reconcile the priesthood of the believer and soul competence with the authority of expert opinion, even in matters that touch the soul. He would see, in a word, that no one can know it all. It is an act of humility to accept your own limitations, and learn from those called to be authorities in some domain of human knowledge.

You Elitist, You

Since this series has dealt with “mangled” words such as tolerance, freedom, and authority, I was tempted to include elitism among them. Elitism, though, is really a misused word inseparable from the word authority. When the meaning of authority is mangled, be sure that a sorely maimed and deformed version of the meaning of elitism will make a showing.

This word makes its appearance in some Christian circles whenever a discussion of art, taste, or critical judgement comes up. That is, elitism does not rear its head when the discussion is over a simple prescription or prohibition from Scripture. There, Christians are happy to ping-pong proof texts at one another. Should the conversation require some extra-biblical information from experts, say from a musical composer, or a professor of literature, or a cultural critic, suddenly many Christians get uncomfortable, and feel the elitist camel is poking its nose into the tent. They might not think of it this way, but they are really struggling with the idea of authority, in two ways.

First, they feel that an appeal to any information outside of Scripture is a subversion of the authority of Scripture. They wish Scripture and Scripture alone to settle every debate. While this desire is commendable, it is neither the meaning of sola Scriptura, nor is it the meaning of the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture is the final authority. What God says has the final say, and overrules all other opinions. But sola Scriptura does not mean no other authorities exist in the world. The world is full of authorities on politics, medicine, history, nutrition, economics, art, the natural sciences and so on. Sola Scriptura simply means that none of these authorities claims equal authority with Scripture. Once these authorities have spoken, their views must be submitted to the final bar of God’s Word. Scripture gets to overrule any and all of them. That is not the same as saying we may safely ignore these authorities and depend on Scripture to answer every question. That attitude is not sola Scriptura, it is what is known as nuda Scriptura – naked texts expected to function apart from any other knowledge of the world around us.
The Bible was never meant to deal with every branch of human knowledge, or speak expertly on every topic. It provides commands and principles that cover all that we need for life and godliness. This is its sufficiency. But these principles, in order to find application in our lives, most often require that we gather knowledge from the created order and submit it to the God-breathed timeless principles of God’s Word. For example, to obey Romans 13:1-4, I need to learn the laws of the land, and Scripture doesn’t give those to me. To avoid enslavement to something (1 Cor 6:12), I need to find out what substances or activities are addictive, and Scripture does not identify these for me. Scripture is sufficient to thoroughly equip us, but no one expects Scripture to tell us which foods are healthy, which fashions are immodest, which technologies are edifying. Most of our knowledge will come from outside the Bible. All of our extra-biblical knowledge must submit to the grid of Scripture to be properly understood, and any knowledge that Scripture explicitly contradicts is false. But Scripture is sufficient not in the sense that it exists to be the sum total of necessary knowledge for life. It is sufficient in that its prescriptions, principles and wisdom, when used to judge and evaluate all other gathered knowledge, gives us all we need to live a life glorifying to God.

Second, even among those Christians who are willing to accept expert extra-biblical opinion when it comes to medicine, economics, or science, there exists a deep suspicion of any expert opinion regarding music, poetry, literature or the arts. Supposedly this is simply too arcane, too subjective, and perhaps even too mystical for any opinion to be held as more authoritative than another. And should one quote or refer to those whose vocation is to understand the fine arts, i.e. critics, it won’t be long before the word elitism is thrown in.

Elitism, properly defined, is rule or influence by an elite. Elite, in turn, refers to a class of people superior to others in rank, ability or power. In a democratic age, the idea that elites exist is both acknowledged and resented. Perhaps it is most strongly resented in the evangelical church, which since at least the 19th century, has become strongly populist.

Populism assumes that all that is true and good and necessary to life can be understood equally by all and accessed or perceived immediately, without specialised training or instruction. To a populist, what God wants us to know is what is absolutely necessary to know, and what is absolutely necessary to know must therefore be uncomplicated, immediately accessible, and transparently practical. Recourse is made to texts about receiving the kingdom as a little child, and this is supposed to end the discussion. Consequently, populism views higher learning with suspicion. Populism views consulting experts with suspicion. Populism views advanced studies with suspicion. Populism views tradition with suspicion. Populism views authority with suspicion. Populism views intellectuals with suspicion. The upshot is a roll-your-own-at-home Christianity, where sincerity and an open Bible will supply all we need.

There are two responses to populism. One is to rightly understand the priesthood of the believer alongside the doctrine of vocation. The second is to understand the role of critical judgements. We’ll consider these next.

Identifying Authorities

Within the avalanche of information coming at us, how do we identify true authorities in any domain of knowledge? How do we judge the anonymous Youtube channel, the self-proclaimed discernment ministry, the mega-church pastor, or the well-known author? We need something more than merely an intuitive feeling that a person ‘makes sense’, or ‘seems to know what he’s talking about’. All false teachers do, or they wouldn’t gain a following. Nor can we trust that we have some remarkable internal common-sense. Everyone thinks of himself as a pretty shrewd fellow, while the Bible unflatteringly calls the lot of us sheep. What follows are some suggested methods to wade through the morass.

1) In the case of living teachers of Christian virtue, does the person you trust exemplify the kind of life you are to follow? Is he an example of true Christian piety (Hebrews 13:7)?

2) Does the person you trust himself submit to a tradition? In the case of the Bible teacher, he must be able to defend his position using Scripture, sound reason, and a proven theological method. Something similar holds for a teacher in any other domain, be it science, history, economics, or human behaviour. Can you evaluate his teaching against anything in the past? Does he seem to translate and pass on what has been tried and tested in the past, or is he boasting in his novelty and creativity? The saying is mostly valid: what’s entirely new is seldom entirely true, and what’s entirely true is seldom entirely new. 

3) Does the person you trust exemplify right thinking? Does he display good reason, sound judgement, unprejudiced evaluations and fair-minded attitudes? This third qualification carries the catch-22 of ‘it takes one to know one’, so we need to discipline ourselves in the canons of right thought, to be able to see it in another.

That is, when we choose to trust a person as some kind of expert in a particular domain of knowledge, we ought not to do so simply because the person seems to have such knowledge in great quantity. There is little skill in accumulating vast amounts of knowledge, and only marginally more in impressing others with the size of that knowledge. What counts when it comes to the pursuit of truth is of a person demonstrates the ability to think. Right thinking is not vast recall, or enormous powers of regurgitation. Right thinking has to do with how knowledge is assimilated, analysed and judged. People are led astray because they are mesmerised by the sound ‘n fury of a lot of facts and figures. “If someone can remember that much, he must be clever enough for me to trust.”
Mortimer Adler wrote a very important and useful book for the development of right thinking, called How to Read a Book. What follows is an abridged summary of his guidelines for the right assimilation of information, followed by the correct understanding of its meaning and of its significance.

* Come to terms with an author by understanding what the important words are in his work, and what he means by them.

* Having done so, discover the key propositions, premises and conclusions contained in the work.

* From these, understand the author’s argument. Observe if his argument is deductive or inductive. Observe what he assumed. Observe what he says can be proved, what need not be proved and what is self-evident.

* Consider what his solutions are.

* At this point, the work of criticising the contents of the book takes over. Critical judgement will say I agree, I disagree, or I suspend judgement with good reasons for doing so. Critical judgement can only be done when you can state the author’s argument in terms he would agree with.
To judge critically is to acknowledge your emotion, make your assumptions explicit and attempt impartiality. The disagreement will not be mere opinion; it will give reasons for the disagreement without being contentious.

* There are three ways of disagreeing with an author rationally, stated as responses to the author:
1. “You are uninformed” – the author lacks relevant knowledge.
2. “You are misinformed” – the author makes assertions contrary to the facts.
3. “You are illogical” – the author reasons poorly or fallaciously.
A fourth way exists, which is really a way of suspending judgement. It is to say “Your analysis is incomplete,” which is to say that the author has not solved all the problems, or did not see the ramifications and implications of his ideas, or failed to make relevant distinctions, or failed to make as good a use of materials as possible.

Once we have begun to grasp and practise these ways of handling knowledge, we are better off in two ways. First, we are able to better handle the knowledge coming at us from every side. If a book, or website or video fails the tests of right thinking, and does so again and again, there is no reason to trust its analysis or to place much stock in it. Second, we are better able to evaluate the teachers of knowledge themselves. A person who consistently commits fatal errors of logic, whose sources are erroneous, or who mishandles his materials disqualifies himself from our consideration as some kind of expert. No matter what the domain of knowledge, we want to hear from people who think properly when they handle that knowledge.

It might seem that we are a long way from plain biblical discernment when we speak of right thinking. But that is because we have imbibed a form of thinking which divorces the God-glorifying task of good thinking from the God-glorifying task of biblical interpretation. If we think well, we are better able to spot teachers who handle the text of Scripture properly. If we think well, we will consult the right people on various areas of human knowledge., and distinguish the authorities from the posers.

Who Made You the Authority?

The explosion of information on the web has made the idea of authoritative information almost a thing of the past. A CGI-Enhanced Youtube video about the non-existence of the South Pole is as accessible as the online Encyclopedia Brittanica’s information on Antarctica. The crowd-edited Wikipedia is found as easily (or more so) than a peer-reviewed journal. The Internet has not only granted full democracy to all ideas, it has tended to flatten out all judgement, and scrap a sense of hierarchy of trustworthiness. No longer do canons of received knowledge exist in hard-bound Oxford or Cambridge Press volumes. No longer do scholars carry the weight of authority they once did in the popular mind. If a video has garnered three million views, it may just be true.

The democracy of ideas is simultaneously the pooling of ignorance. As Doug Wilson quipped, “We have not yet realized that the computers may simply be moving our ignorance around the planet at incredible rates of speed. As one wag put it, ‘We used to think that a million monkeys typing away at a million keyboards could produce the works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not the case.'”

For many, this democracy is seen as a good thing. After all, canonised error is harder to overturn than the slander and hear-say of the gossip-rags. Further, doesn’t the whistle-blowing potential of the web keep people honest? Any man with a phone can now publish to a worldwide audience, and all strongholds of secrets are vulnerable. Ideas which would previously have been actively suppressed, or dismissed by the large publishing houses, can now see the light of day.

Benefits exist, to be sure. Hide-bound ideologies like Darwinism or liberal progressivism meet their match on the web. Like-minded people meet, though separated by oceans. False teachers and false teaching can be called out as soon as they record. Every idea is exposed to challenge through this technology.

On balance though, one wonders if the negatives outweigh the positives. It is the very cacophony of ideas, and the absence of some filter to discard and retain ideas, that tends to destroy any real sense of judgement in most people. People either grant authority to people and ideas that they ought not, or they become intensely cynical about anyone being an authority. Overwhelmed with ideas and competing authorities, the average person simply sets himself up as the authority, deciding eclectically what he deems plausible.

For example, witness the obsession with fake news. Is fake news alternative media? Is it news that does not support the agenda of the Broadcasting Magnates? Is it the news the Broadcasting Magnates disseminate? Who gets to decide? How do we decide? Or consider conspiracy theories. In the world of the Truthers, a conspiracy theory is true precisely because most people think it isn’t. It is considered factual because They deny it. Every denial, or evidence to the contrary, finds an explanation that supports the Conspiracy Theory narrative.

What this amounts to is a crisis of authority. Who can be trusted? When criteria of judging knowledge to be authoritative have disappeared, when human authorities no longer exist, there is no good reason not to take seriously Youtube discussions of the existence of mermaids, accounts of teleportation to Mars, or evidence of time travellers in old photographs.

But discerning who is an authority is exactly where things begin to fall down. We find ourselves in a kind of catch-22: authorities will give us the right kind of knowledge, but we need the right kind of knowledge to spot the genuine authorities from the self-appointed posers. Experts help us to discern the issues, but we first need to discern who the experts are.On what basis should I trust a professor’s word over Wikipedia’s? On what basis should I listen to one pastor and not another? On what basis should I trust one book over another?

This is where the value of tradition comes in. Whether it is an intellectual, cultural or religious tradition, it reflects the process of elimination and assimilation that people do over centuries. Human beings were not meant to do on an individual level in a moment what is meant to happen on the scale of entire cultures over hundreds of years: evaluate meaning, recognise authorities, and deliver a consensus. Of course we must each make judgements, and trust certain voices, but we were meant to do so with the backing of tradition. Within a culture, judgements are passed on from one generation to another. People who have spoken well on an issue are pointed to, and younger consciences are formed as they are exposed to these judgements. People growing up within the bounds of a tradition had the safety of hundreds of years of judgements from which to learn. If your father’s father’s father said it was good, useful, dangerous, healthy, true, or false, there was good reason to listen. When we don’t know, we must trust our betters. In a tradition, we knew who our betters were.

Certainly, tradition can be a great evil, if it hands down false religion, poor judgements or liars held up as paragons of virtue. But most cultures have experienced some common grace, and therefore some truth. Few traditions are completely useless. Cultures most exposed to the special grace of the gospel usually have (or had) more evidences of helpful judgements handed down.

What we face now is every man adrift on a sea of opinion, cut loose from the Western cultural and intellectual tradition, cut loose from the Christian worship tradition, with gales of opinions battering each pathetic raft that each person is on. We are back to the book of Judges. Within this storm, we nevertheless have to (and do) choose whom we will trust. Whether the person is living or dead, we should consider three suggestions for evaluating his or her trustworthiness, and therefore, his or her authority. We’ll consider these next.

Authority and Authoritarianism

When authority is usually discussed, about three sentences later, the word authoritarian will make its entrance. In fact, for some, authority is authoritarian – there is no other kind. Recovering the mangled word authority from all the thought-debris that has been hurled at it requires distinguishing it from authoritarianism. I’m not sure whether dictionaries help or hurt the cause of clarification, but for what it’s worth, Webster’s has authoritarian as “of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority” and “of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people”. For ‘English language learners’, Webster’s defines authoritarian as “expecting or requiring people to obey rules or laws”, which, unfortunately, implicates every parent, schoolteacher, policeman, and pastor on the planet as authoritarian.

The slipperiness of these definitions becomes downright frictionless once it gets into popular usage. There, authoritarian can mean anything from dogmatism to bullying, from having a visible leadership structure to insisting upon ‘blind submission’ to unaccountable authority. And as we know, when something can mean almost anything, it means almost nothing.

If we have a biblical idea of authority, authoritarian has to represent some kind of deviation from that idea. As we have seen, authority is good, and authority is grounded in Someone who did not derive His authority from anyone outside of Himself. God is  a “concentration of power not constitutionally responsible to the people”, but this is hardly a bad thing. For that matter, sometimes God requires submission without giving us lengthy explanations of the purpose or rationale behind our obedience. If that constitutes ‘blind submission’, then there’s a good deal of it in biblical religion.

Clearly, we need another way of distinguishing authoritarian from biblical authority. Perhaps authoritarian could be rightly defined as “human authority which asserts itself as an end in itself”. Genuinely authoritarian leadership would be the kind that is more conscious of its position than of the direction it wishes to point others to, more aware of its status than its function. Authoritarian leadership mistakes the means (authority) for the end – which ought to be the glory of God and the good of our neighbour.

Having said that, judging when authority has become authoritarian requires a prudent and sober judgement. It is not necessarily authoritarian to

  • assert authority to accomplish God-glorifying goals
  • have explicit authority structures and teach the importance of submission
  • require submission and enforce it against the will of another (e.g. child discipline or church discipline)
  • defend one’s authority against rebellion or divisive people (e.g. the book of 2 Corinthians).

Every Christian parent, pastor, manager or governor has to do every one of those four at some point. Almost always, the accusation of authoritarianism will follow. But the humble leader must accept those calumnies as part of leading in a fallen world. He may be tempted to abdicate his role or back away when such accusations come, fearing that the appearance of authoritarianism is enough to mar his blamelessness. But this would actually be honouring his own reputation above the glory of God. It would be to cede ground to those who hate authority itself, not merely authoritarianism.

He may also be tempted to respond to such attacks or rebellion by furiously defending his role as leader, and resorting to strong-arm tactics, intimidation, power-plays, or manipulation. Such fleshly behaviour turns what was a false accusation into a true one. It plays into the hands of the scoffers who begin with lies, and wait to see if they will materialise into truths.

He must accept that even the humblest leaders will be accused of self-promotion. “They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?'” (Num. 16:3)

A faithful leader’s goal is to lead people to where God wants them, using God’s methods, and seeking to display God’s character. He need not defend himself against every fool, but he should explain authority and submission to those who have ears to hear. When God’s church is in danger, he should defend the office of authority, even if it appears he is defending his own name. He should stay the course, outlast the rebels, disciple the teachable, and let the implacable implode on their own.

It is the easiest shot to make: when authority acts like authority, accuse it of being authoritarian. But those under God’s authority see through this.

Evil men do not understand justice, But those who seek the LORD understand all. (Prov. 28:5)