Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Caveat Lector With Popular Faith Writers

I'm not going to mention any names.

But there's a certain popular evangelical preacher out there whose empire, part of our evangelical industrial complex, includes an online writer who appears to be flirting with heresy.  I can't determine this preacher's level of involvement in this material, so that's why I'm not naming names, but the writer attends his church, quotes him extensively, and has developed some ministry initiatives in conjunction with the preacher's church.

Then again, maybe I'm the one who's wrong, but what would you think about somebody who allows the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be called "deep magic?"  This writer apparently thinks it's OK to do so because C.S. Lewis alluded to the Gospel with that term in his Chronicles of Narnia.

I realize that many people love Lewis' Narnia series, and I'll admit, it's a clever way to introduce Christianity to an unbelieving world.  I also understand that some people - particularly, it seems, Millennials - apparently have developed a different definition for the term "magic" than the one with which many generations before them have grown up.  But let's revisit a conventional definition, from Merriam-Webster, and see what it says about "magic:"

- a power that allows people (such as witches and wizards) to do impossible things by saying special words or performing special actions; tricks that seem to be impossible and that are done by a performer to entertain people; special power, influence, or skill

So, that last bit about "special power, influence or skill" could be interpreted to include some of the amazing things that only God has the ability to perform.  However, taken in the context of the broader definition, in which demonic forces are referenced, doesn't the term "magic" get rendered as an inferior word choice when describing God's power?  Merriam-Webster goes on to list things like incantations, bewitchery, devilry, and voodoo as concepts related to magic.

How is any of that honoring to God?

Maybe holiness, purity, supremacy, and reverence are concepts that are keeping people out of church, but does that make it OK for churches trying to reach these audiences to titillate them with the idea that the Gospel is magic?

I understand that it's one thing for an author to attempt a humanistic description of something so fantastic as Christ's Gospel in a literary piece of allegorical fiction.  But should we blur the lines and let "deep magic" suffice as an appropriate estimation of the power of God to save sinners?

And what about us sinners?  In another example of subtle blasphemy, the same author who thinks Christ works deep magic claims God's wrath is the "greatest problem" in the world.  This person writes that the most dire threat we face is God leveraging His wrath towards sin against anybody who does not believe that Christ is His Son.

Which, if true, would make our holy, righteous God the celestial party spoiler.  And here I've thought sin is the world's biggest killjoy.  In fact, the biggest killer, period.

In fact, isn't it also a sin to, by extension, intentionally denigrate salvation, the one gift God offers to His people to save them from, well, their own sin?  Can God's wrath be worse than our sin?  And isn't it circular logic to think that God wants to save us from His wrath, if that's our biggest enemy?  And not all of us become saved, either, so this writer is implying that God is not sovereign, if He can't save us from Himself. 

Let's be clear about this:  God sent Christ to save us from our sins, not His wrath.

I see where somebody could get the idea that God's wrath is the world's greatest problem.  In Romans 5:8-10, the apostle Paul says:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!  For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Do you see that?  "Saved from God's wrath."  But think about it:  towards what is God's wrath directed?

Sin, right?  Ours.

To imply from this sin-wrath relationship that God's wrath is problematic implies that He's the One who is creating an impediment for us.  Perhaps in a goofy, literal sense, since God is the literal Creator of all things, and we can't fathom how or why He could create sin and the process of salvation so we're saved from that sin, we can just go ahead and blame Him for all of it.  Nevertheless, doesn't it smack of pretentiousness and humanistic sanctimony to insinuate that we're not the problem, but God is?  Hey - if it wasn't for God's wrath, we'd all be a lot better off.  But that's not the Gospel at all.

We're the ones who sin.  Not God.  Nothing in God's sovereign Being is problematic.  Absolutely, positively, nothing.  In fact, God's wrath stands as the point at which we recognize the destructiveness and futility of our own behavior, because God's wrath is His warning to us of our inability, in and of ourselves, to save ourselves through anything we think we want, or can do, or should be.  To blame God for holding us accountable for our sin is an incredibly haughty supposition to hold.

The person who wrote that salvation is magic and that one of God's holy attributes is the world's biggest problem has been quoted on media as influential as World magazine and the Gospel Coalition, not to mention websites affiliated with this celebrated pastor and his church.  I've only read a bit of this person's work, and stopped immediately when I came across these two problems in quick succession.

Which just goes to show that no matter what you're reading, wherever you find it, skepticism is not your enemy.  Parse the words you read.  Read for comprehension, not stylistic aesthetics.  Don't take anybody's name, title, or education at face value.

Especially not mine.  If you think I'm wrong about any of this, please let me know.  And yes, I'm forwarding this to the person who wrote these things not just for my own peace of mind, but for their edification.

You're probably familiar with the Latin phrase for "let the buyer beware," caveat emptor.  There's also a Latin phrase for "let the reader beware," caveat lector.

Well, caveat lector, my friends!

Update 4/3/14:  By the way, I suppose there's little use in protecting the privacy of the author in question.  I've communicated with her via e-mail, and she's adamantly dismissed my concerns.  It is Bethany Jenkins, writing under the auspices of Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church and the Gospel Coalition.  For more about how other evangelicals view Jenkins' creative theology, click here.


  1. I don't disagree with your overall point that we should read discerningly. For whatever it's worth though, I once sat in a seminary class when no less than Robert Reymond, discussing the Narnia series, applied the "deeper magic" phrase to the Gospel, and Reymond was no Millennial, nor was he the kind of guy given to titillating unbelievers. Of course, that doesn't make him right, but it's just to say that there are some pretty heavy theological hitters not known for catering to worldlings who found Lewis's imagery to be Gospel-exalting.

    1. Thank you John - I hoped I'd clarified that in the context of discussing the Gospel parallels in the Narnia series; that using the phrase "deep magic" is appropriate, certainly in a literary/allegorical sense, and also in a theological sense, as it's related to the work of literature being discussed. However, the context I'm criticizing is actually referring to the Gospel as "deep magic," using that as the title of an article, and justifying doing so by saying that Lewis did it in Narnia. No, technically, he didn't. I hope that makes my point clearer. Thank you for your comment! (PS - I intentionally tried making these examples hard to Google to discourage readers from finding out who wrote them...!)


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