Honesty vs. Orthodoxy—A Response to John Cooper

By | August 17, 2019

Skillet (a rock band in case you aren’t familiar) frontman John Cooper recently shared a post on Facebook which has in turn been getting shared itself by others. It is apparently in response to a recent announcement by Joshua Harris and a since deleted post by Hillsong’s Marty Sampson. Since Cooper’s post has apparently resonated with some people and is being shared, I wanted to take a moment to respond.

After reading through it a few times, Cooper’s post significantly bothers me because it seems to promote a lot of what I think is wrong with Christianity and seems to demonstrate a lack of understanding in a number of ways. The paradigm behind Cooper’s post seems to be that there is a “truth box” (for lack of a better term—a set of beliefs/truths/doctrines/dogmas) which is clear and simple enough that one can easily grab a hold of it right from the beginning of their faith. Furthermore, there is no greater depth nor complexity which would require a process of learning to come to greater understanding. Additionally, holding on to this “truth box” is more important than anything else. Perhaps I am wrong in this, but this describes religious fundamentalism in my understanding.

One of my biggest concerns with Cooper’s post is that it seems to value honoring this “truth box” above honesty: “Why do people act like “being real” covers a multitude of sins?” It’s true that, for example, saying, “I stole” doesn’t change the the person stole which had real, tangible consequences. But that’s not the kind of thing we’re talking about here, or I’m concerned if it is. Is Cooper trying to say that having questions or doubts about God, etc. is a sin? I’m not sure, but if so, he wouldn’t be the first Christian to believe it. But I think this is very dangerous (which I’ll return to in a moment).

Belief seems to come easily to some Christians. They make a decision to follow Jesus once and seem to have no questions or doubts thereafter. What I don’t know is if this is just truly how they see things or if they have some internal need for the apparent safety and stability which assurance provides. I do know that many people aren’t this way and that their faith is an ongoing journey involving doubts and questioning. And based on the psalms and prophets, this does seems to be biblically acceptable.

I believe there are different levels of understanding. As a child or new believer in Jesus, one generally sees things rather simply and in terms of black or white. This isn’t bad; it is a stage we go through. But it’s also not entirely accurate, not entirely true to reality. As we grow, we should begin to notice greater nuance and things which don’t fit nicely into a simplistic, black and white model. Hopefully, we’ll wrestle with these challenges and as we do so, our understanding deepens and grows. (The alternative is to deny these things.)

“Hypocrite”, a word used by Jesus to describe some religious leaders, is merely a word for an actor as I understand it. Jesus was harshly critical of many religious leaders for merely acting—suggesting that they were posers and imposters. They looked good and religious on the outside, but it didn’t proceed from good character and the true spirit of God inside. This is something which I think is one of the most dangerous, harmful aspects of conservative religious groups. These groups tend to value protecting their “truth” (“truth box”) and acting “correctly” above all else—including being honest, open, and authentic. Because those to things are valued above all else, people are treated based on how well they are judged to conform to these values. (This is why it rubs me the wrong way when people talk about the need to uphold truth or something similar; what I hear is, “My beliefs excuse me from treating these people well.”)

This kind of environment is a pressure cooker for getting people to conform. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, one doesn’t often notice it while in the middle of it. (This is the environment I grew up in.) We all have a need to belong to a group and feel accepted and loved. When love is made conditional on how we act and what we profess to believe, we will naturally, almost unconsciously, act the part we’re told to play. I don’t want to say every believer is merely acting; I don’t believe that’s the case at all. I am saying that this kind of environment unintentionally breeds inauthenticity—hypocrites. While this might prove beneficial, at least superficially, in defending the “truth box”, it is very unhealthy for the individual. (Or conversely, there are those who may not be familiar enough with the religious culture to conform well, and the way they are subsequently treated—traumatized even—pushes them away and in many cases makes them bitter toward God. If a Christian wants others to follow God, why would they support and perpetuate a system which pushes people away?)

I believe that faith and God and Jesus and the bible and Christianity aren’t simplistic. I believe they’re a part of life—real life, and correspondingly, there is as much nuance and complexity. Furthermore, there isn’t such thing as perfect understanding or knowledge; like the truth of the real world, these are things we can continue to explore for our entire lifetime. We will never fully arrive. So I believe it’s extremely healthy for people to have space to go on this journey, to explore God, Jesus, the bible, their faith. And I don’t think we need to worry about what others might think and consequently push people off into a dark corner when they do have questions. I don’t think we need to be paranoid about defending our “truth box” at any cost. We can share and argue for what we believe without having to do so at other people’s expense. If it really is the truth, then those searching for it will head in the right direction. So are fundamentalists really concerned that people find the actual truth, or are they in reality more concerned about ensuring people agree with what they’ve defined as “truth”?

* * *

A second, related big issue which Cooper seems oblivious too (at least he doesn’t mention it) is that Harris and Sampson are potentially walking away from unhealthy versions of Christianity. Toward the end of his post, Cooper expresses perplexity as to why they would hold on to values which apparently come from Jesus: love, generosity, forgiveness. This isn’t a mystery if we can accept that much of Christianity isn’t very Christ-like. If we can understand that Christ and Christianity aren’t the same thing, then it’s not so mysterious how a person might question and/or leave the religion of Christianity and subsequently get closer to Jesus. It’s a grave mistake to believe that anything with a Christian label on it must be something which God ordained. It is an unfortunate reality that many of these things (people, institutions, etc.) mis-represent Christ. One of my main motivations in writing is a desire to correct this mis-representation (though I doubt I’ll make much difference).

I don’t claim to be overly familiar with Harris’ background. From what I hear, he was raised in a significantly conservative culture and groomed to become a leader therein. He followed and passed on what he’d been taught, holding fast to the “truth box”. But later on, he began to recognize some of the harms caused by their beliefs: mis-handling of sexual assult reports, teaching on women, naive beliefs regarding dating and marriage, etc. Being as immersed in that culture as he was, I’m not sure there was any other healthy way forward than to let go of it all, at least for a while. Speaking from some experience, unhealthy religiousity is so intertwined with truth about God and Jesus in conservative Christian culture that it can be quite difficult to differentiate. Sometimes the only thing one can do is knock it (beliefs) all over and then sort through the pieces to begin rebuilding.

I’d never heard of Marty Sampson before, and I am only vaguely familiar with Hillsong. But from what he wrote, it sounds like he was in an unhealthy Christian culture too. Cooper chastises him for saying “no one talks about it”. Obviously this is somewhat hyperbole. But what it says to me more than this is that the church/Christian community Sampson is/has been in must not talk about these things. He says, “Christianity just seems to me like another religion at this point.” I agree. I think there are two “things” if you will. Much of Christianity is just another religion. (Many Christian practices have their origins in either Judaic religiousity of the sort Jesus criticized or in paganism brought in from the Greco-Roman world.) While this is true, there is also following Jesus which is not the same. (There is some overlap between what Jesus taught and what is common in Christianity, but there are significant differences as well.)

Cooper says, “Just because you don’t get the answer you want doesn’t mean that we are unwilling to wrestle with [the idea that God send people to hell]. We wrestle with scripture until we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Many Christians have been critical of those who question certain ideas such as hell, dismissing their questions by saying that they’re unwilling to accept a difficult truth. This could be the case. But it can also be the case that there are good reasons to question a common Christian teaching such as this. (“Hell” as we think of it doesn’t appear in the bible; when talking about “hell”, is one referring Hades—the land of the dead in the old testament? The lake of fire in Revelations? The city dump to which Jesus refers?) Merely saying things like “homosexuality is wrong” or “people will go to hell” don’t make you biblical.

I fear that Cooper’s desire for and call for biblical truth may actually be pointing in a direction of biblical immaturity. This is tricky because many people, even those who have been attending church for years, don’t have a great understanding of even the basics of Christianity. For them, gaining a greater basic familiarity with the bible is a step forward. But we—and our leaders in particular—shouldn’t stop there. Just because we been taught to understand a verse or two in a particular way doesn’t mean that it is truly the most biblically accurate understanding of a topic. We need to go deeper here, be willing to go against tradition if it’s to head closer to Jesus. And our leaders should not condemn as appostasy anything beyond a simplistic understand of the bible.

* * *

Now for some minor points: Cooper’s quote in his third point is apparently a reference to Sampson’s post, however the quote isn’t exact. While this seems like and in many ways is a minor issue, it can also be problematic to mis-quote another person, enough so that I felt it was worth pointing out.

Cooper begins with “More and more of our outspoken leaders or influencers who were once “faces” of the faith are falling away.” As mentioned, I’m aware of two. Is there more to it than this? Cooper’s statement gives the impression that it is so and thus a bigger problem, but I don’t know who else he might be referring to. Second, he states, “They are being very vocal and bold about it. Shockingly they still want to influence others (for what purpose?) as they announce that they are leaving the faith.” Cooper later reiterates his opinion that they are “boldly and loudly” trying to influence others. Is a single post on social media, one of which has since been deleted, qualify as “very vocal and bold”? I’m not sure it does. Additionally, I think it is presumptuous to say that they do this with the desire to influence others. Unless you say that any public statement is an attempt to influence others, Harris’ and Sampson’s posts seem to be merely honest, open statements regarding their current mindset. (It seems Cooper’s post was shared much more in hopes of influencing others—attempting to make an argument to persuade people—than were the two a fore mentioned posts.) (Sampson responded to Cooper with a similar sentiment.)

Cooper mentions “the purity of scripture and the holiness of the God”, then goes on to say, “Have you ever considered the disrespect of singing songs to God that are untrue of His character?” I certainly have some concerns here. First of all, this seems to be based in a view of God in which God is really uptight and his like or dislike of people varys based on their doctrinal accuracy and/or degree to which they follow the rules. (While God is holy, I don’t think it means “anal retentive”; yes, God emphasizes his holiness—his extraordinary uniqueness—in the old testament in a culture in which it was important to distinguish that he wasn’t just another one of the many gods people believed in.) Second, it seems to presume that we can get it perfectly correct, something which I don’t believe is true. In fairness, Cooper merely asks a question here and isn’t exactly making a statement. In context, I expect his point is more a word of caution about being too loose regarding what we base our understanding of God on.

It also seemed odd that Cooper would say, “Is it any wonder that some of our disavowed Christian leaders are letting go of the absolute truth of the Bible and subsequently their lives are falling apart? Further and further they are sinking in the sea…” Again, I’m only aware of two instances which he could be referring to. Sampson says, “I am so happy now, so at peace with the world.” Harris is experiencing a divorce. Nevertheless, his posts begins with, “My heart is full of gratitude…” This doesn’t sound to me like men whose lives are falling apart. Does Cooper have other people in mind whom I don’t know about? If not, why does he say this? Is he possibly skewing the reality out of his obvious passion for what he is writing? This would be ironic since he states earlier, “We need to value truth over feeling. Truth over emotion.”

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