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Operation Romans 8: “I’m a very good man. I’m just a bad wizard.” (Part 3 of 3)

Coming from — Dorothy vs. The Great Oz

Only after the Great and Powerful Oz is face-to-face with the individual is he pressed to admit: “No, my dear. . . . I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

God’s power isn’t like human power. At all. Ours is grounded in showmanship, fear, bravado, tradition, and competition — agon. God’s power just is. Look below at how the Dreamworks creators communicated that difference between God’s miracle and the Egyptian charmers’ production. Rough-and-tumble, just-came-from-the-dessert Moses vs. the slick and snarky magicians.


There’s a reason the charmers had to dim the lights and fog up the room. Sunshine and transparency would ruin their illusion. Their humbug thrived on obfuscation. They had to control the environment and distance themselves from their “audience.” The crowds ooh-and-aah for them, but we know the end of the story.

There’s something that happens to contemporary Fundamentalists when they get together in large groups. They think they must imitate the pagan’s show. They try to build what amounts to ziggurats for Christ. Just as Moody leveraged the Press, they find legitimacy from the Press for their elaborate evangelistic productions. In the end, however, Fundamentalism isn’t very good at wizardry. It’s actually merciful that stitching a human ideology to Scripture ends up with so many knots and holes and crooked seams. It’s good that the ziggurat crumbles.

You just can’t sell the Gospel with humbug. The two conflict.

After all the smoke has cleared, it’s just not our show, and it’s not our battle. God doesn’t need the illusion. He doesn’t work in agon. The battle is God’s, and He’s already won. We just enjoy the victory.

A few posts ago, I included an interview with Benjamin Barber — a political theorist who just released Consumed. In this his latest book, he contends that American capitalism infantilizes the American consumer into buying more and more. He reminds us that it’s only just recently that risk has been socialized: corporations can’t stumble anymore for their financial goofs. And, like a good productive critic, Barber urges us to restore our civic community and make capitalism give us what we need (rather than make us need what it wants to give us).

His critique of capitalism easily fits the problems in American conservative Evangelicalism. Try it on for size. . . .

Fundamentalism infantilizes the believer. We’re treated as pre-redeemed or heathen or unregenerate. That keeps us coming back to church and keeps us participating whole-hog in para-church organizations. And it keeps us consuming more material religion so that we feel temporarily sated. Risk for our religious leaders is socialized — sins (for the prominent) are swept under the rug — while the solitary human things are exaggerated into destructive sins. We think we have a church body, but what we have are groups of silenced, hurting individuals threatened into denial, all to preserve the precious image of the movement. Transparency is forbidden since the public might get a peek at our human foibles.

We don’t have a religion designed to help believers grow in Christ; we have believers scurrying to protect a commodified religion. Barber argues that the Market is supposed to serve the consumer, but it’s been juggled so that the consumer serves the Market. And I’m afraid that it’s the same in Fundamentalism. The Fundamentalist believer is cornered to serve the movement. Barber’s right: for the Market, the Civic Sphere, and the Church. We are consumed. I wish he were wrong.

Capitalism is too easily knitted together with conservative Evangelicalism. We shouldn’t see the Church in a political theorist’s correction for capitalism. In his seminal work on Fundamentalism, George Marsden said that modernity created Fundamentalism. And it seems that in the 21st-century, we may well conclude that capitalism created contemporary Fundamentalism.

But think about it. Go look at the books on your shelves or listen to the evangelistic slogans you’ve absorbed over the past year. Some Fundamentalist “self-help” books sound no different than the ones on Oprah’s Book Club. It’s all Prosperity Gospel. The push-pull “let go and let God” is just like “Stop eating! EAT THIS!!” of a diet fad. Bible verses have actually become weight loss slogans! Church signs make God’s House look like a check-cashing joint.

Capitalism and conservative Evangelicalism share the same sawdust, hawk the same wares, silence the same naysayers, adamently defend the same reputation, polish the same insincere veneer, and tell the same tragic story.

And we don’t need to do that. We don’t need to sell God. We don’t need to pawn the Faith.

Believers don’t have to try so hard to be beautiful. We don’t need to “work it.” God living within us makes us beautiful. We don’t have to struggle to be separate. God has already set us apart, sanctified us, made us peculiar. Just like a wife doesn’t need to have an Extreme Makeover for her husband to love her or a child doesn’t need to ride his new two-wheeler perfectly to guarantee his parent’s approval.

God loves us. His love makes us beautiful.

I had always been a little mystified by why God picked circumcision for His people. What a strange sign to communicate to the pagans that these people were set apart! . . . Did they all walk around half-naked?

Then a friend explained it to me: no, it wasn’t an external sign to the pagans; it was an internal sign to the Hebrew!

The “sign” of our sanctification is to us — it’s private, internal, quiet . . . small! We know we’re His. We don’t have to flaunt it or defend it. It would be immodest to do so! We don’t have to fight for or against it. That’s just unnecessary. Romans 8:5-11 contrasts the obsessive flexing-your-own-moral-muscles humbug with the Christian life like this:

Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.

But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!

The war’s over. God won. And now, while we join God in cleaning up the muck left from the battle, while we struggle and gradually progress from our sinful nature toward Christlikeness, we’re not in a continual fight with God (His Son reconciled us). We’re not at odds with our world (just a little out of step). We don’t need to cut off our fellow believers (we’re all part of the Body after all!). And we’re not in turmoil with ourselves either since God redeemed all of us and is progressively sanctifying us until we’re in Glory. We don’t need to struggle to look saved. It’s not a competition.

No, we’re not salesmen or show windows or wizards or charmers or humbugs. We’re not soldiers. We’re actually more than conquerors.

[tags]Fundamentalism, Bob Jones University, Benjamin Barber, Prince of Egypt, Keswick theology, Chaferianism, Humbugs, The Wizard of Oz[/tags]

14 thoughts on “Operation Romans 8: “I’m a very good man. I’m just a bad wizard.” (Part 3 of 3)

  1. The tragedy of human sin is still a problem and a stumbling block to those who are seeking Christ. I was sharing Christ with a co-worker several times this last week Camille. The young man(25) is seeking but when I ask him what’s keeping him from bowing to Christ, he continues to use the hypocrite answer. This guy was a wrestler in high school. It’s no wonder they make the best employee’s because they know what kind of dedication it takes to be the best at what they do. He told me that if he gives his life to Christ, he doesn’t want to be like those few that talk out of both sides of their mouth. He literally said that he would want to be “totally sold out for God”. And he has no idea how “fundamental” that remark is.
    I’ve shared all he needs to understand his need. I simply hope he finds that kind of peace that we’ve found. It’s painful to me to watch and wait. He’s become a good friend and I don’t want to mess it up by getting in the way. I also don’t want him to live and die without knowing my Saviour. Pray for him. We’re getting together to go bowling or something later this evening.

  2. I wonder if some of this is due to fear. I know I continually heard about being “careful” lest we fall into a particular sin, usually something having to do with drinking, smoking, music, or sex. Once we understand that, because of God’s grace, we are no longer in an adversarial relationship with God but are now his children, we are able to live out of love and gratitude. Sure we still sin, but now it’s more like when a child messes up. There is discipline, but it’s for the purpose of teaching rather than punishment. It’s so freeing to simply live from day-to-day, depending on God’s grace to form me into Christ’s image, and knowing that when I do screw up I can simply go to my Father, admit it and move on. I don’t have to depend on my own effort, but I rest in Christ’s work for me.

  3. I was a BJU student while you and Grant were GA’s, though we didn’t know each other. I stumbled across your blog by accident about a month ago and have been following along with interest ever since.

    I can so relate to this latest post. There is an enormous difference between my current church and the churches I attended previously and that my fundamentalist relatives still attend. The church I attend now (PCA) is *real.* You’re allowed to be real. Several years ago a prominent member was found to be an alcoholic. Given my background, it amazed me to watch what happened after this became common knowledge. The family was enfolded. The alcoholic went away for treatment and repented. He was welcomed back to church with open arms and we see him now with his wife and kids each week. I honestly think half the congregation has forgotten all about it. Had it happened in some of the fundamental churches I’ve known, the entire family would have left the church in embarrassment. They would not have been cared for during the father’s treatment, and who knows where they all would have ended up spiritually. Because you can’t have that kind of major sin in the church. No one will ever say so, but the members know in their hearts that this is true.

    Another example. As a fundamentalist, you always have to be “up,” even if the circumstances are horrible. Your mother dies, and you have to say, “This is hard, but the Lord is so good! He’s good all the time. I know my mother is in a better place. God has been so faithful to me throughout this whole time.” And yes, maybe that is all true, but you lie about how bad you still feel. You lie by omission about the days when God doesn’t seem close, and when it seems He’s not good.

    I had never thought about *why* people are compelled to do this, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s because you can’t let the movement down. You can’t admit that your church and your church’s God may not be able to solve your problems and make things right.

  4. What a great post! I think the following 17th century hymn translated from Latin by Edward Caswall sums it up (choral music types may have sung this as an anthem by Jane Marshall):

    “My God, I love Thee,
    not because I hope for heaven thereby,
    nor yet because, if I love not,
    I must forever die.

    Thou, O my Jesus,
    Thou didst me upon the cross embrace;
    for me didst bear the nails and spear
    and manifold disgrace.

    Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
    should I not love Thee well?
    Not for the sake of winning heaven,
    nor of escaping hell.

    Not with the hope of gaining aught,
    not seeking a reward,
    but as Thyself hast loved me,
    O everlasting Lord.

    So would I love Thee,
    dearest Lord, and in Thy praise will sing;
    because Thou art my loving God
    and my eternal King.”

    Yeah, I know it dwells on the negative, but it counters the rabid fundamentalism so many of us escaped.

  5. I’ve read and thought over (although perhaps not thought enough) this series of posts, and wish to offer the following comments. They include mild criticism, which is sometimes the most fun.

    1. I agree with the poster who said that your incisive mind allows you to put into words discontents, thoughts, and instincts that we all feel. Those instincts have value, but it is more helpful to go beyond them and see *why* we have a problem with fundyism.

    2. Lay off on old D.L. please! I disagree with some of his theology, but you can hardly place him in the same category of P.T. Barnum. Whatever his faults, I am not aware of any evidence that he acted for his own aggrandizement at the expense of fellow believers (although I am open to seeing such evidence) and I suspect he would be saddened to see the state of modern revivalism. I also suspect he’d tell some of the modern moralistic fundys to “chill.” After all, I think having a “pickpocket night” might be an improvement over some fundy churches who think such people are beyond the reach of the Gospel. Furthermore, how far do you want to take your criticism of him learning sales techniques and applying them to evangelism? Isn’t this a question of wisdom and degree? I suspect we disagree on the nature of rhetoric, but it is any worse for someone to learn secular sales ideas and apply them to evangelism than it is for me to learn rhetoric from someone secular (like Aristotle or Burke) and then applying it when I speak with a pagan?

    3. Your best point is how fundys turn all of Scripture into a battle between God and Man. That is a root of all kinds of interpretational evils. As one of my Reformed friends put it, it’s time we stop reading the Book to see where the text fits into our lives, and start reading to see how we fit into the text! This false conflict between God and (Redeemed) Man is also how fundys turn every human emotion into sin, and create a catch-22 situation where anything can be turned into a sin by a clever leader. Put bluntly, no one is better at this than Mazak. He’s wrong, and Horton is right. We’ve talked about that before.

    4. Nevertheless, there *is* a battle going on. Burkeans like you dislike war analogies, but I see one in the Book and do not apologize for what I see. The fundy problem is that they have spent so much time fighting so many enemies that they can no longer tell the difference between foe and friend. Kind of an autoimmune system disorder. There IS a fight between the City of God and the City of Man. But a few residents of the City of God have locked themselves into a ghetto and are firing missles at their own people when we need them on the walls (of course, I know that God does not technically *need* us for anything. His City will never fall and His plans cannot fail. But humanly speaking, we need them out of their ghetto).

    5. I question the statistic about who is most likely to get an abortion. “Statistics” from sources such as the one you cite carry as much weight with me as stock tips from Ken Lay. This doesn’t negate your point about the harms of fundysim, but I suggest that you exaggerate you case on that point.

    6. I question your continued linkage of fundyism and evangelicalism, and contend that there is a world of difference between the two. Even where there are errors, the errors are not the same (Joel Osteen is a heretic, but he is not teaching the same moralistic error of BJU or PCC). One teaches the Categorical Imperative of Separation and one does not. My own experience with fundys and evangelicals tells me the two are different. Furthermore, the PCA, which is where many ex-fundys (including myself, an earlier poster, and even you) have ended up or will end up, is nothing if not an *evangelical* denomination.

    I also contest your view of the history of fundyism. BJU did not suddenly become introverted, moralistic, and a develop an theology pitting God against His redeemed children in 2000 or in 1983. Any change has been much more gradual, and the pernicious errors have been around much longer.

    Finally, I close this extremely long post with a comment on sanctification. Sanctification is a paradox. We “work out of our salvation [sanctification] with fear and trembling,” but know that “it is God who works in us, both to will and to do.” We ought to say with St. Paul that we labored more than them all, but that we did nothing because it was the Grace of God that worked through us. I repeat this because sometimes I wonder if you, in your (much needed) zeal to refute a theology that has long neglected one side of the paradox veer a little to close to the ditch on the other side of the road.

  6. Annelise, you make a wonderful point. This is something that has irked me for some time. When real sin–serious sin, and not just wearing jeans, listening to Casting Crowns, or having a beer at the ballgame–pops up in fundy churches, they handle it in the worst possible manner. People hang their heads in shame, and then sweep it under the rug and go on as if nothing happened (those in the BJU circle can think of a prominent area pastor, and a dorm sup, where this is true). There is no love, no confrontation, no support, no confession, and no compassion for the innocent who are affected. There is only shame, guilt, and gossip.

    Therefore, there is no chance for repentance. Oh, and there’s not church discipline either. Those who pride themselves on adherence to the text might start by taking seriously Paul’s command to deny communion to unrepentant believers.

    Right now, in the fundy church in which I grew up, there are two men who have left their wives. One had 2 kids, the other 7. The poor wife is now alone. Neither man has been sufficiently or publically confronted. Neither wife has been offered much help. Worst of all, the man who has 7 kids was once a leader in the church. Or at least someone who made a show of doing many holy deeds. He’s now at another fundy baptist church in the area, driving a bus. Nothing has happened. No one says anything. That’s a disgrace.

    Ugh. OK, rant over. I also agree with your point about how fundys make you be up all the time. Somehow King David missed that memo.

  7. Hey Dave!

    1.) 🙂

    2.) I don’t think that Moody intentionally used humbug. He did intentionally use capitalistic means of spreading the Gospel — methods that come with consequences. His heart was pure, but we are reaping some of his choices that we repeat because they seem natural or obvious. The connections *are* there. And I’m not the first to make them. Evensen and Abrams make them too. Just because he meant well doesn’t mean that we should keep our hands folded politely when we see a problem.

    3.) Yup. Horton’s right!! 🙂

    4.) Yes, a battle. But the actual war took place on the Cross. Christ won. He’s the Victor! We’re cleaning up after that. But do notice how you present it between the City of God and the City of Man. That’s a corporate battle — not infighting. Big difference. HUGE difference. It’s a totally different war!

    5.) Too bad. It’s a fact. I can’t reference it online because the statistic doesn’t exist online. But it is a fact presented to all the counselors at Piedmont Women’s Center here in the Upstate that the most likely woman to get an abortion is a white, middle-class conservative Evangelical college student. I learned that from a graduate student’s research. It’s a fact, David. Startling and gut-wrenching, but true. I wouldn’t have brought it up unless it was a plain, cold fact.

    6.) I have a dissertation here for you to read, David, that proves that the soteriology in Chaferianism (which is usually pre-trib Baptists), Keswick, and Pentecostalism (like Osteen) is basically the same story. There are some variations (like how long your skirt must be or how many rings you can wear on a hand), but it is the same story — saving grace is one thing, but sanctifying grace is something you earn, and it’s precariously based on your efforts. You could also pick up the Five Views of Sanctification. That is similar.

    7.) I never said in this post that it was a sudden change. I believe it was gradual. I believe that after the Supreme Court Case when BJU became a for-profit corporation, that things changed. And with the expanding of the organization, the educational focus got even more muddled. It was always a family business. I do *know* (from an aforementioned favorite professor) that Dr. Bob Sr. intended the school to NOT foreground Keswick theology (doesn’t make sense for a liberal arts school). I do *know* from people who graduated way-back-when that it was different.

    8) Which ditch is that? I often quote John Murray — “I work because God works.” See the document that led to our resignation if there’s any doubt. 😉 But seriously, I’m not lazing around. I always giggle at this comment because well. . . . it reminds me of the grad student who scolded me for not reading enough. 😀

  8. Hey, AnneLise! 🙂 I’ve been in the *down* part of human life several times. And the Lord brought many, many wonderful people — fundamentalist people!!! — into my life at that time to encourage me. One said, “It’s okay to be sad. You should be sad. . . . But don’t be sad like the pagans who have no hope.” He was right. I told him so months later. I still think about those words he said to me.

    Maybe it’s a certain kind of sad or “down.” Hmmm. . . . I don’t really know what I’m after here, but I’m just playing.

    I *have* seen a so-called fundamentalist church enact church discipline appropriately and lovingly. It was a blessing to the whole body because the Holy Spirit was there. But that was a rare thing.

    The church is supposed to be a hospital — like you describe, AnneLise. A place where people sick in sin go. You don’t go there if you’re all well! Doesn’t make sense.

    Anyway, glad you found us.

  9. I suspect we disagree on the nature of rhetoric, but it is any worse for someone to learn secular sales ideas and apply them to evangelism than it is for me to learn rhetoric from someone secular (like Aristotle or Burke) and then applying it when I speak with a pagan?

    I didn’t see this earlier. It actually demands more attention than it will get at the bottom of these comments I think. 😉 But as a start. . . . I don’t think we disagree on the nature of rhetoric per se. From your comment, I think we disagree on the nature of capitalism. Salesmanship is not merely a variation on persuasion. It is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

    That’s a start. This is a pretty huge issue though.

  10. Dave said:

    …is it any worse for someone to learn secular sales ideas and apply them to evangelism than it is for me to learn rhetoric from someone secular (like Aristotle or Burke) and then applying it when I speak with a pagan?”

    I would say emphatically, “Yes, it is worse.” Scripture never condemns the use of rhetoric, but it does flatly state that the love of money is the root of all evil.

    God takes the opportunity at least a couple of times in Scripture to teach us the concept handling the sacred appropriately (Cain and Abel’s offering, Nebuchadnezzar’s use of the Jerusalem chalices, Uzzah’s handling the Ark of the Covenant, etc.).

    Our American culture has a disconcerting tendency to link our system of Democracy and Capitalism with the Sacred. Those are both assumptions we’ve made, offerings (if you will) that we’ve decided are appropriate. It’s a profane linkage. When it comes to choosing an appropriate vehicle for communicating sacred concepts, Burke and Aristotle, it seems to me, have a lot more to offer than the banality (and possible profanity) of “salesmanship.”

  11. Hey, great document on sanctification. I had never seen that before (did you post it earlier). I noticed you quoted one of my profs (Dr. Combs) several times. Tremendous article. I’m glad you’re familiar with it.

  12. I know the conversation has mostly moved on, but I rarely pass up a chance to get in another word. Some of this is posting for public reading our IM conversations.

    2: Fair enough. I do not wish to shield him from criticism, and I am sure there is a connection. But I am not sure how much of modern humbug we can lay at his feet.

    4: Yes, Christ won. The Kingdom is an already/but not yet thing. But I stick with what I wrote, because there is a fight going on, and I see it every day. As we talked about, we’ve both right. We just have different perspectives because I am living in a mostly pagan, secular world (staring at the City of Man) and you are trying to awaken people who have locked themselves into a ghetto within the City of God. By all means, keep up the work. We can use those folks out here.

    5: As I said, it’s not that I don’t trust you or your student; I don’t trust the abortiuary. And even if they are telling the truth, the figures at one abortiuary, in one of the most covnersative, evangelical counties in the USA, tells us little about the 1.1 million abortions every year nationwide. Nevertheless, the fact that even one, or even a handful, of women in “our” circles abort their children should shock us that we are getting something wrong.

    6: I don’t think I disagree on your Pentacostalism point. I do disagree that fundyism is little different from evangelicalism than one brand of soap from another (a point you hint here, and have made more expicilty elsewhere). I know that in theory (reading) and in fact (my PCA church is evangelical, and a far cry from BJU).

    7: Maybe.

    8: See point 4. I say stuff like that because I live in a differnet world, and because I am a lawyer who knows how easily error can snowball based on a single bad precedent. It’s not that I think you are *personally* riding the edge of a ditch. But judges have a habit of saying too much in an opinion, often just to make sure they cover all bases.

    As to Grant’s comments, I agree both that greed is a sin, and a rarely preached-against sin at that. I agree about the importance of the sacred. But 1) assuming good motives, and 2) within limits, I do not think that “sales” techniques are inherently evil.

    Suppose you are raising money for something we all agree is good–an orphanage in Africa or bibles for somewhere they aren’t suppose to go. A sales technique is that if you put something compelling on the envelope, people are more likely to open it. So, I put a sad-looking kid on the cover, or someone clearly reading an illegal Bible. I raise more money, or at least I am more likely to raise more money, and if I do, I put it to good use. .

    I contend that’s not wrong. Surely I could go overboard and prey on people’s guilt. Or I could just send a blank white envelope and a bare, black-and-white typed page. But if I want to teach a class, I *could* engage in dishonest rhetoric or read from the most boring theological tome I can find. Instead, I put into practice stuff I learned from certain excellent speech teachers.

  13. Just for fun. . . . while the PCA is certainly Evangelical in the historical sense of the word and even in the cultural sense, I am not thinking of those sorts when I say “Evangelical.” I guess that harkens back to my days at Indiana U under Stephen Stein and his Sydney-Ahlstrom-lifted definition of “evangelical.” One of the points was a person who believes in a datable conversion experience. The PCAers I know don’t talk like that. And they aren’t dispensationalists either. So there’s a different sort of conversation going on.

    The PCA is tapping into an older strain of Evangelicalism — older in the sense of the First Great Awakening. Most of my complaints come with the Second. Maybe that’s a clearer way to explain my beef.

    Now. . . . is rhetoric = salesmanship? Heavens to Betsy, oh my dear me — NO! 😉

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