Monday, January 31, 2011

Good News for Anxious Christians: An Interview with Author Philip Cary

An interview with author Philip Cary by Angelina Deola.

Dr. Philip Cary, professor of Philosophy at Eastern University, has released several books, the most recent entitled: Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Worry About (Brazos Press). Though Dr. Cary is unapologetically attacking the unbiblical tenets of what he calls the “new evangelical theology,” he does so with the intention of preaching the gospel—that is, the good news of Jesus Christ. He has a deep love for the gospel and for God’s people, and it is his belief that ideas like “hearing God in your heart,” “finding God’s will for your life,” or “having to continually experience joy” are hurting Christians rather than helping them.

Good News for Anxious Christians offers a much needed look at what the gospel is and how Christians can live in light of the gospel, not adhering to extra-biblical ideas but instead clinging to the mystery and miracle that is found in the Son of God himself.

CPYU: You said in the introduction to Good News for Anxious Christians that your inspiration for writing the book came mostly from interacting with your students because they “are most oppressed by the new evangelical theology and most in need of permission not to believe it.” What was your experience like interacting with these students over the years, and why do you think that it’s important to preach the gospel by revealing the mis-teachings of the new evangelical theology?

Cary: Well, I think that what I call the new evangelical theology—not a very inspired label but nonetheless a useful one—makes people awfully anxious. So for instance, a whole lot of students come from my university thinking they’re supposed to find God’s will for their lives and they get worried that they might not find God’s will for their lives, or they might find God’s second best will for their lives, or they might not find the one person that God has planned for them to marry. And, I think these worries do them a lot of harm and make it difficult for them to make responsible adult decisions.

What an adult decision maker needs to do, like Solomon when he prays for wisdom, is discern between good and bad decisions--not to discern “God’s will for your life.” Solomon asks for a heart that discerns good from bad, because that’s what responsible adults are good at. That’s what God wants us to want. So after years and years of hearing this from students, I respond with: “Look, you don’t have to do this, it’s not in the Bible! I’ve got good news for you!” So the good news is that what you’re supposed to believe is in the gospel, it’s about Jesus Christ. And you are supposed to obey God’s law, and that’s his will for your life.

CPYU: Given that this “new evangelical theology” is harmful, how do we re-teach ourselves and our teenagers?

Cary: There are lots of things we have to learn to do. First and foremost, we have to learn to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is to say, to give people good news about who Christ is, and therefore good news about who they are, because the news about who Jesus is, which is the gospel, is news about who we are. We find who we are in him.

And what is the gospel? The gospel is not a technique for getting saved, like “how to get saved.” The gospel is the story about Jesus Christ. In fact, it sounds like Christmas carols. “Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, oh come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem! Come and behold him, born the King of angels.” It also sounds like music. It sounds joyous, and it says, “Look, look at the baby in the manger! There he is! He’s the king of angels! He’s our Savior! ‘Child for us sinners, poor and in the manger, who would not love thee, loving us so dearly.’” It says, “There he is! Take hold of him!” You’ll know how to live the Christian life if you have Christ.

CPYU: In your book, you say that the desire to be relevant, within the church and within the greater society, is not helpful in teaching people about Christ. Instead, you say that teachers must depend on students’ willingness to learn. What about the teenagers who don’t even want to be in church?

Cary: The alternative to relevance is beauty. Part of this is my own experience. You know, I was a baby boomer, and they invented relevance for baby boomers, and I routinely find the attempt to be relevant just boring. Suppose you’re a kid who doesn’t like poetry, who has to take a class on Shakespeare. Which is more likely to get you interested: a class on how Shakespeare is relevant to your life, or a class which actually teaches you to understand Shakespeare? I think the class on relevance is likely to be boring. Likewise, which is more likely to bore a kid coming to church: a sermon on how relevant God is for your life, or a sermon about who God really is? I think that the second kind of sermon is going to be more exciting, especially if you understand that indeed God is beautiful. The story about who God is is a beautiful story, a powerful story, a somewhat terrifying story—it’s a story that moves us. But it is not, thank heaven, relevant to our lives, because when you try to be relevant, what you do is you reshape the story to fit our lives, and that makes it boring, because it doesn’t change our lives. Our lives become the criterion to fit the biblical story into, whereas what a good sermon does, and good teaching in youth group and so on, is it gets us into the biblical story, which we discover is larger, more powerful, more beautiful, and a bit more scary than we realized, and that’s exciting because it’s in contact with what’s real.

But here’s the secret: you have to find this stuff beautiful and exciting yourself. If you don’t, then you’re not going to be able to convey that to someone else. So if you’re trying to be relevant, you’re essentially acting as if, “Well, I know this stuff is boring so I’ll try to make it relevant to you...”

CPYU: In the conclusion of your book, you criticize the “practical” sermon because “it talks as if nothing important happens when Christians gather on the Sabbath, because everything depends on our going out Monday morning and putting into practice what the preacher told us to do on Sunday.” But, there are critics of Christianity who say that Christians are only Christians on Sundays. So how are pastors supposed to fight the epidemic of hypocritical Christians without being overly “practical”?

Cary: What I think changes us from the bottom up is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We become those who find Christ as our beloved. That’s what changes our hearts. And you can’t do that by telling people how to love Christ. You have to do that by telling them about Christ.

What we should learn is to take Christ as our beloved and obey him. And the way to get there is to get us deeper and deeper into the story of who Jesus is, and to find ourselves in that story, and then to say, “Ah, we can follow him.” There is a place to tell people about the Christian life, but that’s always as part of the overarching story of who Jesus is, who God is in Christ, who the God of the Bible is, who the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are. “Who” questions are the crucial things, because when we know who this is, the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that’s what changes us, and then you can add a little bit about how to live the Christian life. But telling people about how to live the Christian life will not change their lives. Telling them about Jesus Christ does.

If you’re a preacher, you have this incredible privilege of giving people nothing less than Jesus Christ. WHY would you want to give them something less?! Okay, you can give them the other things too if you want to, but first give them Jesus Christ. If it’s all about the application, then it’s all about me. I come to church to hear about Jesus Christ, not about myself.

Are the questions we ask ourselves and our teenagers centering anyone on the gospel?
As Cary writes, “The story we live in, whether we believe it or not, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the disciples and the soldiers, the women who are healed and the children raised from the dead, we are all characters in Christ’s story, recognizing that we are one of the many sinners for whom Christ died.” As active participants in the gospel story, are we attempting to better understand our story’s great protagonist or are our questions causing us to grow in anxiety rather than in Christ?

Are we asking questions at all? Dr. Cary claims that one of the main purposes of his book is to get Christians thinking about the assumptions we have made about their faith, such as the need to hear God speak to our hearts, or the need to experience joy all the time. Whether we agree with his conclusions or not, it is important to evaluate the assumptions we make about our faith and reflect on their validity, their usefulness, or even their goodness in our lives.

Angelina Deola is currently a student at Eastern University and in the fall of 2010 served as a writing intern for CPYU.

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