Cult of Personality: The Unchristian Rhetoric of Christian Tribalism

Cult of Personality: The Unchristian Rhetoric of Christian Tribalism January 31, 2013

Last month, I read a helpful post from pastor Kevin DeYoung on the state of Christian publishing. The post itself was great, and I, like DeYoung, am thankful for the improved quality of (most) cover art and the astounding amount of resources available. But two of DeYoung’s unfortunately true observations seem to point to a bigger problem in contemporary Christendom: tribalism. DeYoung notes:

4. Too many books are derivative in nature. They quote the same books, cover the same ground, and say the same stuff. This is probably a problem in all of publishing. All I can speak to is the Christian world. Although we have more good books than ever before, I still see a lot of books (again, maybe my own?) that strike me as a poor man’s version of something Packer or Piper already said.

6. Some topics continue to get a lot of attention (e.g., gospel, marriage, prayer, pastoral ministry, cultural engagement). But there is more important ground to cover…

This seems to denote something that I have often noticed in my “tribe’s” (Reformed, hipstery, pseudo-baptists) blogs, books, and overall patterns of communications: We quote the same people over and over. It is, like in any culture with technical jargon and ideological standards, an easy rut to get stuck in. And it is certainly not to say that we are shipwrecked, but it would serve evangelicals well to intentionally step outside of this theological comfort zone to explore the riches of God as found in other theological tribes, cultures and traditions. To not do so could be sinful.

The sin of tribalism is three fold: rooted in judgment, cult of personality, and exclusivism (as in, more exclusive than Jesus). All of these are common to the American individualist culture, but as Christians who desire the restoration of the whole world, these must be seen as what they are—unchristian values.

Judgment of materials, speakers, and books that come from a different theological perspective can be helpful if it is rooted in graciousness and discernment, but when it comes from a place of arrogance and assumed rightness it is poisonous. Jesus did not come and give His Holy Spirit to the Church for complete mistrust and disunity, but for the unity of the Body. Sure, we will disagree at times, but there is so much to learn from those whom arrogant people (like me) so quickly want to judge. Right now, my soul is being fed by two books way outside of my tradition: one written by a Catholic Priest and the other by a surly Russian Orthodox novelist. Sure, I probably wouldn’t agree with their views of eschatology, but these books are teaching me that the gospel is much bigger than I thought it was.

The cult of personality in evangelicalism does not need much unpacking. The select quoting of 5–15 individuals whom we (I) somehow believe “get” the gospel better than anyone else in the world are the only people we listen to sometimes. But as I have learned from reading people outside of my “tribe” (and even by reading thoroughly some who are inside it), I am convicted that, just like DeYoung said, we are recycling content for the sake of personality-driven conformity. Christians were saved not to “follow Apollos” or to “follow Paul,” but to follow Christ. Getting outside of the words that we are comfortable with help us see beyond cultural rhetoric and savor the words of good theologians even more.

The exclusivism is bothersome from a sociological perspective. Have you ever read a wonderful quote that you want to post on your twitter/facebook/blog/whatever but you feel like it may come off as “not Christian enough” or just a little theologically lacking? This happened to me this past week while reading The Brothers Karamazov and the great Russian monk Zossima said: “All of life is paradise, if only men would believe in it.” This spoke to me, to my knowledge that the world was created “good” by a good God. But I was nervous that if I posted that to social media, it would be seen as if I were denying total depravity, salvation, or something. Zossima’s words were not perfect representations of the gospel narrative, but they did speak of an aspect of the gospel truth. And the fact that I worried about this worried me even more. It worried me that I was so afraid of saying something outside of my tribe’s theological assumptions. And I remembered that “the world is the LORD’S and the fullness thereof.” This means that I don’t need to exclude things that don’t line up 100%, or which don’t give the whole picture, but instead discern the Imago Dei in them.

The is no magic bullet, but there is hope for the growth of the Church by looking outside of subcultural norms and repenting of unchristian rhetorical ruts. This can be a helpful tool for dialogue, conversation, and mission. I am still learning how to do this unnatural repentance, and I am thankful for the joy that I have found in it.

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