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Beyond Cynicism 6

Can cynicism be biblical? Well, maybe. “Since disillusionment is illumination — the (often painful) dispersal of illusion — cynics have much to offer the church if they can do so in love and in the direction of hope and praise.” So Andrew Byers, in his very fine new book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint. Andrew claims “cyncism is a sickness” and defines it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. Perhaps no one was more tempted to cynicism than Israel’s prophets. Why? Because it was their calling to expose the underbelly of Israel, and living in the underbelly creates cynicism. But what can we learn from them?

In an expression, Byers says we learn to have “prophetic anguish” instead of dwelling in “cynical anger.” And there is the difference between the persons who can offer little more than deconstruction with very little, if any, offer of construction.

If both prophets and cynics are called to expose, what are the major differences between the two? What for you tips you off that “so and so is a cynic” while someone else is the “prophet”?

From the prophet we learn that sin must be confronted; that irresponsibility must be faced; dissent needs to be heard. The difference between the prophet and the cynic is not in the analysis of sin but in the intent of the analysis. Disgust with an institution is not the same as love for a community. Prophets cry out for God for the good of the people; better yet, God cries through the prophet to the people. Is Jonah the cynic? The cynic knows what he or she is against, but not enough of what he or she is for.

The prophet is engaged; the cynic distant. The prophet shows sympathy; the cynic apathy. The prophet is tortured; the cynic torturing. The prophet is in anguish; the cynic just plain angry. The cynic is a fallen prophet.

A sign of the prophet, vs. the cynic, is seeing good in the people when it is present; the prophet has hope and love while the cynic yearns for more opportunities to critique and upbraid.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Taylor

    I just finished “Christian Mission in the Modern World.” I believe John Stott epitomizes this definition of a prophet. He was constantly amazing in his ability to draw a hard line faithfully yet graciously.

    On the flip side, it has been my tendency to criticize too readily. I see this cynicism too often in the ECM as well, which is maybe a reason I’ve hesitated to add one more jaded voice to that conversation.

    I’m learning that if I want to be a prophet, I need to be a student, first of the Bible, then of the men who exemplify it in word and deed.

  • rjs

    Nice distinction – there is much to think about here.

  • http://www.peace-dc.org Dennis

    I appreciate this difference and will have to read the book. I’m concerned about the response of people to the words of either prophets or cynics. is there a difference? People were (are) notorious for disregarding the words of prophets, so does it matter if the prophet is also (or rather) a cynic? I suspect it does matter; but they still kill prophets.

  • Amos Paul

    Can prophets not be distant, scathing, and angry? I’m not saying they *should* be–but I think they can be.

    My humble opinion is that a prophet retains dogma–that is holds uncompromisngly to a belief or beliefs that are the foundation upon which everything else he says. Truth exists, even if *nearly everything* can be seriously challenged for the sake of it.

    The cynic rejects all dogma. For the sake of progress towards truth, the cynic criticizes everything–but quickly finds out that in doing so one has no real measure by which to gauge when one has ‘progressed’ to turth. Truth then becomes entirely subjective, and one’s critcisms and analyses become cynical.

  • rjs

    Amos,

    I don’t think your distinction between cynic and prophet is exactly that intended by the current post. It has little if anything to do with dogma and truth (at least not directly). Cyncism as a sickness is defined it as being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. A prophet may be realistic about human nature and motives – but is not grounded in a cynical distrust.

    This post is thought-provoking though. Dennis is right – there seems little difference between the response to a prophet and a cynic. And there is little difference between either and an obstructionist troublemaker.

    I was accused earlier this year of being overly cynical and sniping in comments about church – especially evangelical churches. I think the criticism was at least partially valid. I’ve stopped, for the most part, commenting on such issues because I don’t really know how to make the distinction appropriately.

    The answer is not, in the face of true conviction of something deeply wrong, to turn from a prophetic voice to a meek and mild acquiescence. But neither is it to snipe, belittle, and ridicule.

  • Taylor

    I wonder if part of the problem isn’t our low value of language. Especially online, thinking out loud becomes typing out loud. Any time I think out loud, I am reminded how easily I jump to conclusions (see many of the comments on John MacArthur) about the motives of others.

    I love your last paragraph RJS, and I would only add to that one more idea. We aren’t all prophets, but most of us think we are (chief of sinners here). In light of that, maybe some criticisms would be best stated by actually living a different life. I am starting by always rereading my comments before I click submit.


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