Pablum as Profundity (or Negative Thoughts on Positivity)

 

You may have seen them on social media -Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest- they are fairly ubiquitous. You may have a few friends or acquaintances that post them every day, or you may post them yourself: inspirational quotes over a picture of a field, sunshine, or stylized background. Usually you are invited to share the quote with everyone and sometimes they sound pretty good, but sometimes not so much.

This week I’ve been waging a one man campaign against the profusion of positivity quotes. On Facebook I have been posting faux inspirational quotes sourced from actual words and writings of select people and watching the reactions they garner (you can see them here: https://www.facebook.com/michaelalandsman/media_set?set=a.10152491981653169.1073741840.548908168&type=3). Sometimes they were shared with no comment and sometimes they started conversations. I even used three hashtags to indicate that the quotes were meant to be taken satirically. At first I started with absurd quotes from movies like Mystery Men or Big Trouble in Little China but soon moved on. I discovered in the tweets and resources of televangelists and Christian “life coaches” a world far more inane and unintentionally funny than I thought possible, so I started posting their quotes. Then I started thinking about the whole thing.

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A good friend of mine recently said in a sermon that life is not moon beams and sparkle ponies. I mention this because most of these motivational quotes exist in the world of moon beams and sparkle ponies. They are words of wisdom from a world where everything is expected to work in our favor and to our advantage. We desperately want to live in a world where our poor finances, familial crises, or poor health are magically relieved. These spin meisters take the scriptures and use them to create a world of moon beams and sparkle ponies and we buy their books, we ingest their sermons and life courses, fill their wallets, and eat their pablum. And thats exactly what it is: pablum masquerading as profundity.

These purveyors of pablum will make cursory comments about life’s difficulties, but the paths they offer ultimately lead to disappointment. They teach people to go around the long, slow march towards Christlikeness while trying to get out of the situations that God is using to make them more like Jesus in the first place. Telling someone “When you see what’s invisible God will do the impossible” or “A broke man is not a man without a nickel but a man without a dream” acknowledges difficulties but sidesteps completely any words or counsel on how to actually see the invisible or find a dream. And the sad thing is the scriptures do offer us help, they do offer us direction and comfort, but when God’s word becomes mixed with trite feel-goodisms the scriptures are robbed of their power.

The way Jesus offers us is infinitely better than anything we can possibly imagine, but we don’t get the fullness of it right now in the present. We get a foretaste, and believe me its the best thing you’ll ever taste, but it is only a hint of the glories to come. That foretaste, that hint of the world to come, is what motivated and empowered the early Christians to endure terrible times and that should be what motivates and empowers us. St. Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The context of that glory is the resurrection and the redemption of all things not finding a dream or seeing the invisible. As we anticipate that day lets not hit that share button before a few moments of reflection. Half-truths sound great, and may contain a modicum of good advice, but ultimately do not satisfy because pablum never does. 

Protestant Holy Tradition?

I was listening to a debate online the other day. One of the debaters was confronted by his opponent who said that he was not being faithful to the Biblical text, by relying on his tradition’s understanding of Scripture. The debater responded that he did not have a tradition and that he interprets the Bible according to what it plainly says. This is the standard response many Christians have when confronted by, or shown, contrary evidence to a position that they hold.

A friend of mine recently finished a distance online theological studies course. The course lasted two years and the scope of the study was focused on one particular book. I heartily approve of people who pursue deeper theological knowledge in order to deepen their own faith and to help others so I was glad when my friend finished the course. There is a slight danger though because when theology is shaped by one persons understanding of the Christian faith we should tread carefully. I encouraged this person to continue to study and to read books and material from outside her own tradition. Those who have gone before us provide the theological framework that we build upon, and this in turn shapes the traditions of our respective Christian groups. Now you may be thinking, “Not so fast! We’re Protestants and we only believe what the Bible says.” I’m glad you brought that up; let’s deal with it briefly.

If you are preparing a sermon do you use commentaries? As you prepare sermons or teaching lessons do you refer to extra material in order to understand the history and context of what you’re going to be teaching or preaching? Do you read Calvin, Luther, Owen, Henry, Hagin, Dake, Meyer, or Scofield to better understand the Scriptures? When you are doing that you are appealing to a specific tradition’s understanding of the text and underlying theology of the text. Congratulations! You are no longer just teaching what the Bible says you are appealing to an overarching tradition that you think best represents what you think Scripture actually says. Appealing to no tradition is just as much of a tradition as the tradition of a liturgical church and it has historical roots that can be traced to a specific point of origin. No one reads and interprets Scripture in a vacuum so to appeal to the plain literal reading of the Bible is to appeal to the tradition of the people who invented that framework.

This begs the question then is there a tradition that is better, or more accurate, then another? I would answer yes. For those of us who are Protestants we often do not realize our origins, nor do we always understand history, nor do we acknowledge the effect that history has had on the way we interpret the Bible (generally speaking). The longer I’m a Christian the more I think we should return to a tradition that is more informed by the church fathers then the narrow readings our modern traditions provide. For example, dispensationalism is only two hundred years old and it goes against a lot of what came before it. As such we can probably reject it as a system. I’m not saying there is no truth in dispensationalism, I’m saying that there may be a better tradition more grounded in history and the life of the church then a 19th century system that owes it origins to an English minister who saw things in the Bible and made connections that no one had ever made before. I’m not trying to trash dispensationalism nor am I saying they aren’t Christians but they do provide a clear example of my point: we all have traditions, we need to acknowledge them and be open to the realization that there just may be an ultimate one out there that shaped all of the others. Maybe we should seek it, and if we find it compare it with our own, the results may be surprising.