A “Favorite” Pet Peeve: “Asking Oprah (or Dear Abby)…”

A “Favorite” Pet Peeve: “Asking Oprah (or Dear Abby)…” May 3, 2012

In a recent column a Christian woman asked “Dear Abby” (Pauline Phillips) about God and homosexuality. Her son came out to her and she was afraid to ask her pastor about God’s attitude toward gay people because she was afraid of what he would say. So she wrote to “Abby” asking her how God views homosexuality. Abby’s response was predictable–that science had shown the Bible to be unreliable on this subject and that entrance to heaven depends on a person’s character only.

This illustrates a pattern I see among Americans including many American Christians. The Christian band “Casting Crowns” has a phrase in one song urging Christians to “stop asking Oprah what to do.” Amen to that! And I add (for Christians, at least) “stop asking Dear Abby or any other advice columnist or TV talk show host (etc.) what to do!”

Why do people, including some Christians, think that a person can give competent theological advice just because he or she writes a nationally syndicated column or hosts a television talk show? That simply baffles me. It baffles me so much it leaves me bewildered.

A few years ago someone wrote to ask a nationally syndicated columnist what makes a life worth living. Her answer was (paraphrasing) that a life is worth living so long as it produces more than it consumes. Didn’t anybody else notice that that was the very belief that led to the Nazi program of killing thousands of people in German hospitals during the 1930s just because they were deemed incapable of contributing to society?

Also, did nobody else notice that her (the columnist’s) answer is right if there is no God? And that only someone who does not believe in God could say such a thing?

I have been a Christian theologian for almost 30 years. I think I have a reputation for making theology relatively simple to understand. And yet, throughout those years of teaching in church-related institutions and churches I have rarely been asked a theological question by anyone except students in my classes (or former students).

And I know that’s not only my experience. Most theologians I have talked to relate the same experience of rarely being asked for theological advice or insight or even guidance (to finding answers).

Once a church I belonged to appointed an ad hoc committee to consider a major change in membership requirements. I volunteered to serve on the committee but was excluded (twice). When I asked several people associated with the process why no theologian was on the committee I was informed it wasn’t a theological issue. Huh?

Now, maybe in my case it’s just me. That is, maybe I’m just not the kind of person lay people or pastors feel comfortable approaching for advice. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. But this isn’t just about me. I notice that many Christians (to say nothing of non-Christians!) ask theological questions of people who have no theological training at all.

I would venture to say that America’s leading theologians are people like Joel Osteen (I’m not aware of any formal theological training on his part), Oprah Winfrey, and Dear Abby. “Christian” bookstores’ shelves are full of books on theological subjects by people with no formal biblical or theological training. I can’t begin to tell you how many “testimonies” I have heard from people spouting theological ideas based on “This is what I heard God saying to me.”

American Christianity is sunk in a swamp of subjectivism and individualism–theological and religious populism–where everyone’s opinion is as good as everyone else’s and better if they are nationally read columnists or talk show hosts (or musicians or whatever).

Is there a solution to this? Well, obviously, the desired solution would be for columnists, talk show hosts and others to defer to theologians. But I doubt they know any. A better solution would be for pastors and other church leaders to place more value on their theologians–the ones in their own congregations and/or educational institutions.

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