The church today has a problem. Well, actually, it has many problems, but we’re just here today to discuss one of them, and that is the problem that modern Christians seem to have something against “good boys.” You know what I’m talking about. There was a time when the wholesome, the upright and the clean-cut were held up as admirable examples, but today, that admiration has been replaced by aversion. Godly people are no longer admired for their godliness. Instead, they are stereotyped and labeled as “goody two-shoes” by fellow Christians.
I most recently encountered one of these subtle manifestations from someone for whom I have a lot of respect—Andrew Peterson. Andrew is one of the most gifted Christian songwriters in the industry today, and even though he may not be the best tunesmith, he has a wonderful way with words that recalls the work of Rich Mullins or Paul Simon (two writers he’s repeatedly cited as major influences). So before I launch into this post, I wish it known that I am a big AP fan, and I think his heart is in the right place. What’s unfortunate is that he has picked up some misconceptions about Scripture and its application to the Christian life, including that aversion to “squeaky-clean-ness.” This came out in a piece called “What I Learned From SCC,” a tribute to Steven Curtis Chapman that he wrote a few days ago. The piece was inspired by the fact that he had just completed a tour with Steven and was moved to express his gratitude. I was excited to read it. But as my eye flew down the page, this paragraph caught my eye, where Andrew talked about his expectations before meeting and working with Steven:
… I’ve never heard a single negative story about the guy. I’ve been in Nashville for 15 years now, and, well, you tend to hear less-than-flattering stories about folks from time to time (I’m sure there are a few about me floating around out there), but I have yet to hear one of those about Steven. What that might lead a rascal like me to conclude is that either a) Steven is so squeaky-clean he must be hard to like or b) he’s a complete wreck and he’s hiding it. I didn’t realize until this tour was underway that there’s a third option. Here it is: Steven is a wreck, he’s not hiding it, and because of the mighty presence of Jesus in his life, grace abounds to those around him.
Now watch what Andrew did here. He equivocated—he took the phrase “he’s a wreck” and introduced it with one implied meaning (skeletons in the closet, un-confessed sin, etc.), then turned around and used it again with a different implied meaning (broken sinner who needs the grace of God). Probably he thought it was profound, but really it’s just misleading (not to mention linguistically sloppy). Yet the wording of this proposed “third option” reveals quite a bit. Why, for example, did he not say it the other way around: “Steven really is squeaky clean, he’s not hard to like, and because of that, I realized that I’m needlessly prejudiced against the ‘squeaky clean’ types”? It’s because “squeaky clean” in his mind automatically carries negative connotations—Pharisaism, pietism—rather than pure, real, honest-to-goodness wholesomeness. The solution he found allowed him to keep holding onto that prejudice. Here is an even more direct excerpt from a little later in this piece:
Everyone I know in Nashville who knows Steven has said to me something like, “I love Steven. He’s a good man.” But from the first week of the tour I discovered that Steven isn’t a good man. He’s as sinful as the rest of us [my emphasis]. He wears his weakness on his sleeve. He’s quick to share his pain and his struggle. That doesn’t make him mopey–he’s quick to share his joy, too. But what’s so wonderfully subversive about the Gospel is that our ability to honestly bear our grief and woundedness just makes room for God’s grace to cast light on all that shadow; it makes room for us to love each other.
Just as a quick aside here, don’t you love it when people blur the lines between sin on the one hand and general “brokenness” on the other? Godly people constantly suffer pain and grief through no fault of their own. In fact, Steven is a prime example of that. But even waiving that little issue, this whole paragraph just comes off as a long way of saying, “Phew!” Though of course that’s not how Andrew looks at it. I think his idea is, “Hey, we’re all sinners in the eyes of God, and nobody is any ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than anyone else, so we might as well not pretend by calling anybody ‘a good man.'”
But that pretty much defines “non sequitur.” Yes, we’re all sinners, and…? Let’s put it this way: Mother Theresa needed Jesus just as much as Hitler did, but even so, one of them murdered 6 million people and the other lived a life devoted to caring for the poor. Now kids, which of these is not like the other? I am not preaching works salvation here. I am saying that moral relativism is the bane of clear thought. We can’t pretend that there is no difference between people, and it can be wholly legitimate (and not idolatrous, as Andrew seems to imply at one point in the piece) to say that Mother Theresa was “good” and Hitler was “bad.” Moreover, we repeatedly see in the Scriptures that God delights in those who glorify Him, and He is angered by those who despise Him. Man demonstrates his love for God by keeping His commandments. This truth resounds through Old and New Testament alike.
“But Jesus came to abolish religion!” No he didn’t. Get off of Youtube and open your Bible to Matthew 23:23.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
What did Jesus say? Did he say “Tithing is stupid. Forget about it. It’s all a heart issue”? No. He said that tithing and other “externals” by themselves, when they are not accompanied by mercy and faith, are empty. It does not follow from this that there is anything wrong with “keeping the rules.” On the contrary—it’s both/and. So in other words, you can wear a suit to church on Sunday, watch your language and listen to praise songs while still being unsaved. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to dress like a bum and swear like a sailor.
Now, on an individual level, people can have a genuine rebirth of faith where they look back on their life and say, “I have been hiding behind the appearances while my heart was really selfish, prideful, and far from God.” I have heard testimonies like this from Steve Green and others who share similar reflections. This can be wholly appropriate and biblical. The problem comes when we move out from the individual level and make sweeping generalizations for Christian society as a whole, to the point where some Christians automatically suspect other Christians who seem to “have it all together,” as if there’s something “not right” about that. Or they simply feel a distaste for it. “Ugh… too perfect. Too nice. Too Mayberry.”
And yet, for all that, I believe Andrew Peterson is wholly sincere. His tribute came from a full heart. I’m quite sure he wasn’t saying to himself at the beginning of it all, “Well, it would be really awkward if Steven were just a great guy because that would make me feel inferior, and I’m embarrassed by that.” But subconsciously, I think it’s the psychological process that leads Christians like him to their larger spiritual conclusions about grace and godliness.