Soon after I left the New Reformed movement, I took an American Literature class. I was surprised to learn just how much Calvinism had influenced many of the early American classics. One author in particular drew me in: Nathaniel Hawthorne. I don’t know much about Hawthorne, but after I read Young Goodman Brown, it felt like I knew exactly where he was coming from.
The first negative experience I can remember coming from a New Calvinist preacher was when he described going to a baseball game, looking around and thinking to himself, “Most of these people are going to hell.” I threw up in my mouth a little. Sure, I used to theoretically agree with “total depravity” and “eternal conscious torment.” But, I had never really put real faces on those ideas.
I don’t want to give too much away from Hawthorne’s short story (it only takes a few minutes to read), but that story has not left my mind since I read it. What he describes is a situation where you are so obsessed with the immorality of everyone around you that you cannot function. Nietzsche said, “the lowest kind of man sees evil everywhere”, and I think he was right. When we are so caught up in our own failures, or those of others, we reveal our own stasis. We are stuck. We can’t move forward. Guilt is a terrible thing to endure.
Many people today see guilt as being a primary function of religion: if we don’t have some authority telling us what to do, how can we be good? If we don’t have an objective list of what’s right and wrong, why would we choose the former? If there is no punishment waiting at the end for those who are more “naughty” than “nice,” then what’s the point of trying? So, because of these assumptions, many have completely rejected religion altogether. And, to be honest, if that is what someone is proposing, I, too, say, “Walk away and don’t look back.”
But, is that the whole story? Thankfully, I am encountering more and more people and groups that don’t have guilt at the center of their spirituality at all. As my friend Doug Hammack has said, “Sin’s just not that big a deal.”
But, of course, there are many churches who accept this as inherent to any true spiritual journey. And, in my experience, the New Reformed movement are the experts at this. The movement is defined by an unhealthy picture of who God is, what Jesus did, and who we are. God is angry at you, because you are evil. God had to send his Son to die for you because He needed an innocent victim to pour out his anger on. Without your acceptance of that sacrifice, you will be without hope in this life and the next. Guilt is, therefore, central.
If you have the courage to leave the movement, and if you have invested very much of yourself into it, I will guess that you will probably need some professional therapy (not “Christian counseling”) to work through these issues. And, one of the first things you’ll realize is how much you have been driven by guilt. And, it will be liberating to free yourself from that obsession.
One interesting thing is that the movement has done an amazing PR job. You might be attending one of these churches and not even know it. One distinction of the movement is more attention paid to “relevance,” or “speaking the language of the culture.” One moment of clarity for me while working for one of the most prominent New Reformed churches in the U.S. was when a girl who had been a member for a few years asked me, “What is Calvinism?” She literally had no idea. How does this happen? Because many of those scary words are avoided in these churches, but the content is the same.
For example, Tim Keller (a New Reformed NY Times Bestselling author) likes to say something to the effect of, “We are more wicked than we believe, but more loved by Christ than we ever dared hope.” That sounds nice, and it’s catchy. But, is this really healthy? We’re not just wicked, we are more wicked than we believe? My own pastor used to sum up “the gospel” with something like, “You’ve sinned against God and you deserve death. But, Jesus died for you so you don’t have to suffer eternally for your sins.” Again, that sounds pretty attractive. But, this is precisely the problem. Anyone who spends just a few minutes contemplating this as an objective reality will quickly see that it is dangerous. Toxic. Not only to each of us individually, but also in how we see others.
When I hear members of these churches say things like, “I’m so thankful for Jesus,” it actually makes me sad for them. Because in that statement lies the implication that they are not good; they are evil; they are deserving of God’s eternal wrath; they don’t deserve anything good.
One way that this negatively effected my family was that my wife and I used to try this unhealthy logic on our kids, when they were much younger. If they did something wrong, we would tell them things like, “Now, you deserve to die and be punished forever for your sin, but because I love you I am showing you mercy.” Now I wonder, was this child abuse?
As a followup, I hope this post clarifies some of my problems with the New Reformed movement. Sadly, I can imagine many will read this and not see a problem at all (“my church isn’t like that” or “things are changing”). Others who are currently involved in the movement will know, deep down, that these things are dangerous, and that it’s unhealthy for them to continue. Still others will have had limited experience with the movement, and will not believe that people actually think or do these things.
What do you think? Is a “guilty conscience” being at the center of your theology a good or necessary thing? Do you know what affiliations your church has? Do you have friends and family who are caught up in this movement?