Turning a Blind Eye to Evil Is Evil, Too
. . . in which I (kind of) disagree with Tim Challies
by Phil Johnson
“They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil” (Jeremiah 23:14).
was writing something to agree with and embellish a comment left by Gilbert under Frank’s post yesterday, but it got long, and I decided to make this a full post. I’ve got to say this, and I don’t want it buried at the end of a 120+ comment-thread.
First, some background: The venerable Tim Challies set our little corner of the blogosphere abuzz earlier this week with a post on the dangers of “watchblogs.” There’s quite a lot to applaud in what Tim said, but I don’t think he said everything about the subject that needed to be said. As a result, I thought his post was (quite uncharacteristically for Challies, of all people) lacking in balance.
One of the unintended side effects of Tim’s post has been a widespread and sometimes lively discussion about whether PyroManiacs qualifies as a “watchblog” or not. In the midst of one of these conversations, Gilbert (a long-time reader and commenter here, and a skilled meteorologist to boot) came very close to identifying what I see as the key difference between healthy discernment and the obsessive/compulsive peevishness some of our fellow critics seem to think is the mark of real orthodoxy. Gilbert said:
Gilbert: “Without putting words into [Phil Johnson's] mouth, he’d rather spend his time building up believers and himself in the Word rather than calling people out for damnable heresies that are causing people to drift away from the true faith and send[ing] them to hell.”
Quite right. But let me add this: It needs to be said that “calling people out for damnable heresies that are causing people to drift away from the true faith” is a shepherd’s duty, not an option—and it can be quite edifying if done well.
That said, anyone can sample my preaching ministry; I invite you all to do so. What you’ll discover is that when I am speaking to the flock (as opposed to lecturing in a men’s meeting or exhorting pastors in a Shepherds’ Conference seminar, or writing on my blog) I employ humor and criticism very sparingly. That’s because when I preach, my immediate concern is to explain the meaning of specific texts of Scripture and exhort people to apply the truth to their lives in obedience to God.
This blog serves a totally different purpose. It always has. I make no apology for that, especially here in the gutless, effeminate, faint-hearted, hopelessly “diverse,” hazy-and-hesitant subculture contemporary evangelicalism prides itself on being.
It has frankly never troubled me one bit that people who hate our theological stance dismiss us as “watchbloggers” (or worse). If someone can’t see how PyroManiacs differs in tone and style from the trash-talking parodies maintained by certain bloggers whose sympathies lie at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from us, that says more about their brand of discernment than it says about ours.
Look: I agree with the gist of Tim Challies’ concern. (At least I think I do. The more Tim has clarified himself, the less certain I am that we agree as much as I assumed at first. Still—)
I do think it’s evil and irreverent to regard apostasy as nothing more than something to mock and be entertained by. Those who fall into that attitude inevitably mirror and amplify the very impieties they say they deplore. They tend to become petty, overly-critical, thin-skinned, and surly-sounding gossip-mongers. Ditto with the sophomoric anti-watchblogs that relentlessly parody such full-time critics, raising the stakes on the irreverence game to ever-new heights. These two opposing forces feed one another’s worst tendencies, and I have no desire to participate with or encourage either side in their native forums. The comment-threads on both sides always turn into adolescent insult-contests, and it can be downright ugly. It’s an embarrassment. It’s also an easy trap for anyone still swaddled in unglorified flesh to fall into.
. . . which includes all of us. Me too.
So here’s where Tim Challies’ post was most right on target: there’s far too much of that in the blogosphere.
I also agree wholeheartedly with Frank Turk’s point: certain amateur and self-anointed “discernment” specialists are a serious blight on the church and an impediment to the cause of truth. (Especially those who have no accountability to or involvement in a real church with a serious pastor and legitimate elders.) People like that give discernment itself a black eye.
I also agree with Doug Wilson: Sarcasm can be as dangerous as a fillet knife, especially when wielded by someone with myopic vision.
However, (and I’m going to be emphatic about this:) I do not agree with those who claim there’s nothing whatsoever funny about heresy, apostasy, and man-centered religion. Such things are certainly not more funny than they are abominable and tragic, but they nevertheless look hilariously comedic at times. And at such times it is perfectly appropriate to laugh hard and derisively at them—even to mock them—as Elijah did, and as Jesus did, and as even He who sitteth in the heavens doth (Psalm 2:4).
Tim Challies is absolutely right to point out that a steady diet of that sort of “entertainment” isn’t good for anyone. Let’s affirm that emphatically, too. But if someone takes Tim’s point and uses it to argue that it’s always sinful to make fun of the profane antics of Baal-worshipers—if someone thinks it’s just flat-out wrong to be amused by, say, The Sacred Sandwich, or “The Cave of Adullam” department in Credenda Agenda—I have to demur.
I think what Tim Challies is saying is that it’s unhealthy to fix one’s attention on error full time rather than spending most of our time dwelling on things that edify. If that’s all he is saying, I say (as heartily as possible) AMEN! (Philippians 4:8). But if someone wants to seize that point in order to suggest that it’s always better to be an encourager than a critic, my reply is: That very attitude is largely responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.
Is there not a sense in which it is legitimate to be “entertained” when we read about Elijah’s mockery of the Baal-priests? I admit that I’m entertained by it—every time I read it. Hey: I’m also entertained by Tim Challies’ book reviews—and Todd Friel’s occasional satires based on Tim Challies’ book reviews.
I’ve read Tim’s blog for years, and I really don’t think he means to suggest that it’s always inherently sinful to be entertained by the refutation of error. At least I hope that’s not what he means, because I think if he gave up that (very helpful, edifying, and entertaining) aspect of his blog, we’d all be the poorer for it.
I’ll go further:
I think regular doses of the kind of wry humor we find at Purgatorio can be good for us in the same way an albuterol inhaler helps an asthmatic. I likewise think Chris Rosebrough’s amazing “Museum of Idolatry” serves a valid function (more like a stiff dose of potent smelling salts than a mist of albuterol)—making it very hard for chronically apathetic evangelicals to ignore or minimize the creeping heathenism that is festering in their midst. My occasional laughter at the ridiculousness of the abominations Chris collects doesn’t diminish my horror at the speed with which those things have come to dominate the evangelical movement (just during my short lifespan).
I understand Challies’ central concern. There is a vocal segment of the fundamentalist/evangelical community for whom an obsession with sensational exposés and nattering negativity has proved seriously unhealthy. It has given them a sour attitude, a perpetually angry tone, and a really bad reputation. I don’t enjoy reading what they write, either, and I don’t hang around their blogs.
But the mentality that dominates the evangelical culture today—and the far greater problem, in my judgment—is exactly the opposite. The overwhelming majority of today’s evangelical sophisticates would clearly prefer it if no one ever criticized evangelical Golden Calves. Rampant error doesn’t unsettle them in the least. They are quite happy to live with it and even actively make peace with it.
But let someone dare to voice an objection to a troubling doctrine in the latest best-seller making the rounds on campus—even a denial of the Trinity or some other soul-destroying soteriological or Christological novelty—and the very people who profess to hate criticism (and who work so hard to seem agreeable in their dealings with with the unorthodox) will heap the nastiest kinds of vituperation on the soul of the one who has dared to criticize unorthodoxy and thereby threaten the “unity” evangelicals think their timid silence has won them.
This is a huge problem. It’s the main reason these abominations are multiplying so quickly and growing steadily more sinister.
Occasionally over the years, Tim Challies has been on the receiving end of these angry reprisals from the sweetness-and-civility police, so I’m confident he’s not unaware of how the system works. Moreover, I certainly don’t blame him for wanting to tone down the amateurs and provocateurs who reflect so poorly on that segment of the blogosphere in which Tim is (without a doubt) the best-known voice. I just hope he’s not saying he wants to relinquish the role of critic altogether, because Tim is a classy, careful, balanced, biblically-minded critic, and we desperately need courageous and discerning voices like his.
Even if not everybody is always happy with the message.