an interesting magisterium

Alert Reader Gil Thomas pointed me at the Acts29 blog to some comments by Mark Driscoll, particularly about a phone call he got from Rick Warren.

I'm going to drop those comments in here, and do some color commentary:
Third, I got a call from Pastor Rick Warren last week. He called simply to see if there was anything he could do to help. His kindness was humbling and helpful.
Which, you know: I get that. I get it that Rick Warren would call Mark Driscoll to lend him a (kind of) elder-statesman thing -- especially since guys like Dever and Piper and Mahaney are doing that. I get that someone who is perceived by many as a leader in the American church would call Pastor Mark so that, as a leader, he could give him some leadership advice.

I think, however, it begs the question of "what kind of leader of the American church is Rick Warren?" And that's not a rhetorical question, but some of you will take it that way because I don't answer it right here. Let me say only, for a moment, that he's a different kind of leader than Dever or Piper or Mahaney and we'll come back to it.
I asked him how he handled his critics and he had a great insight that in our day criticism has changed. He explained that there was a day when a critic would have to sit down and write a letter and then mail it into a newspaper. With limited space, the paper would then be able to only print a fraction of the letters they received. The printed letters were often not read and quickly became dated.
See: that's an interesting insight because, regardless of what follows, it says that in the past some criticism was sort of cast away because it didn't get through the filters of newspaper editors, and that was a way to get past it.

Let's think about that for a minute: someone like Rick Warren, who is responsible for a lot of things in popular Christianity today including the irresponsible idea that churches ought to be gigantic, and program-driven, and who operates a church which at best treats baptism like some kind of party favor, has the opinion that in the past some of that could get by without answering critics because the subjects didn't interest the editors of newspapers.

To keep this brief, that's an interesting magisterium. He's right in one respect: there are plenty of quacks out there, and I might be one of them. But his point that somehow that's a valid place to decide who is and is not a quack leaves so much to be desired that I'll let you, the reader, think about whether newspapers should decide what is and is not useful to report about men who lead churches.
However, Warren said, in our day criticism is marked by the following four factors:

He forgot "mean" and "impersonal" (meaning "they don't apologize for disagreeing", and "they don't call you on the phone first"), but I take exception to the idea that internet criticism is "permanent". Blogging, or erecting a web site, for the sake of some argument or issue doesn't make it "permanent" any more than getting you book published makes its contents "permanent".

What it does do is make it public, and the question then is "will anyone read it?"

If some guy named, um, "centuri0n" sets up a blog and starts saying that Rick Warren has 3 wives and practices Shinto in his basement at an altar to his father's father, the first question is, "did anyone really read that?" And the second question is, "can that be proven at all?"

That guy with a blog may never delete his blog, but if no one ever reads it, the only one who will judge him for it is Christ. The tree fell in the woods, and nobody else cared. So "permanent" is a bizarre category for what is different about criticism today, especially in comparison to criticism filtered by local newspaper editorial staff.

I'd also like to add that the attribute of "constant" criticism is only born by those who are doing something which somehow keeps drawing attention to their foibles or errors. For example, I am unaware of Mark Dever having to field "constant" criticism -- unless I should have read Steve Camp lately or something.

Let me suggest that pastors who are in the scope of "constant" criticism either have established themselves as opponents of a very powerful and vulnerable enemy, or they are doing something which deserves criticism. There may be a third choice, but I'll bet if you can find one, it's really the first choice.

For example, there was a time when Phil Johnson took a lot of guff from Fundamentalists. Phil had made some statements -- which he stands by -- criticizing the problems with their movement, and the defend of Fundamentalism came out of the woodwork. The problem, however, was that Fundamentalism was both very powerful (in numbers, anyway) but also very vulnerable -- and it the advocates for such a thing had to try to push Phil over because, well, if he's right the movement was dead, dying, or worse.

The other example I'd tender is Joel Osteen. Why does Joel take guff from people as diverse as Michael Horton and Steve Camp? It's because Joel is off the apple cart, out of the street, down the storm drain, and rolling down into the swamp outside town.

Criticism is not just hard to bear because it seems to come often. It is hard to bear either when it is the truth or resembles the truth enough to cause us to pause. False criticism is pretty easy to bear unless it costs us money or prison time -- the rest of the time (like when people call me "mean") it's good for a laugh just to see how far someone will take their imaginary world.

So I find Rick Warren's explanation facile for starters -- but I can see why he adopts it. It is a very easy way for him to dismiss his many critics -- and to put himself in Jesus' camp, at least in his own mind.

I think there is another reason for his view here, which relates to what I started to say, above, but I'm not ready to spill the beans yet.
Warren then went on to explain that, as Jesus experienced, the strongest criticism for any Christian leader comes from rigid religious people.
See what I mean? They criticize you, Mark, not because you don't really get how to keep the pulpit free from cheap scatalogical jokes and irreverant speech: they criticize you because they are "rigid religious people". You know: you're doing ministry, and they're blogging or raving.

I think an interesting contexter here is that Abraham Piper recently called Mark Driscoll a jackass, and he wasn't accused of making an unjust criticism. Someone else points out that referencing Jesus' anatomy and digestive functions from the pulpit is unwholesome and it's suddenly a world of hurt.

So as we think about Pastor Warren's trajectory here, let's remember that it's selective at best, and that somehow I think the actual criteria for making the selection is hidden or stowed away.
When I asked him what someone should do when facing criticism, he gave the following insightful points:

1. Turn your critics into coaches by hearing what they are saying and humbly considering if there is any truth in their criticisms to learn from.

2. Never engage the critics on their terms because it only escalates the conflict and is not productive.

3. Be very careful with firing off emails or leaving voicemails and responding out of anger in a way that you will later regret.

4.Shout louder than your critics to define yourself and do not allow them to define you.
Of these 4, #3 I get. In fact, #3 is the best advice on earth to give anyone who is giving or getting criticism -- but you don't have to be a globally-recognized brand of inspirational publishing either to give it or to receive it. You just have to read the book of James.

Here's what I think about the rest:

#1 seems so obvious that to mention it seems a little, um, obvious. Yes: criticism is only any good if it's true, and if it's true, do something about it. That's why PDL underwent so many revisions after the critics started pointing out its foibles.

#2 ignores the real burden and real freedom of #1 -- that is, if #1 is true, valid criticism should be used to improve one's self, and false criticism is simply false.

And #4 reveals something about Warren that I never thought we'd find him saying out loud: he's willing to admit that nobody defines who he is but himself -- that is, there are no valid criticisms of him unless he says so. That's a doozer, folks -- a real eye-opener. Someone criticizes me? All I have to do is say, "I stand for ice cream!" louder and longer, and therefore the critic can't be right. Someone once called that "the big lie", but I can't remember who that is.

So that leaves us with my yet-unexpounded subtext -- "what kind of leader is Rick Warren?" and the "other reason" for Rick Warren wanting to make himself a member of the Jesus squad and his critics "rigid religious people".

If you haven't really been thinking about Rick Warren's trajectory, it's riding on a the social Gospel, highly critical of clear doctrinal affirmations, balanced on self-fulfillment, focussed on style and allegedly "brining people together". For those of you who can't put it together, it's emergent lite. Rick Warren is the "conservative" Brian McLaren -- though I will admit that Warren's theology is not as completely wretched as McLaren's.

Warren is the nice suit for the left side of the evangelical divide. And it makes sense for him to give Pastor Mark an open hand -- just in case the MHC Pastor has one too many MHC-17 moments and Dever or Mahaney or Piper calls him on it and he doesn't want to hear it.

I think Warren's advice is bad advice, especially to Mark Driscoll. It is sketchy at best, flippant and self-deceptive at worst, and leaves one in the really unhelpful position of not having to listen to anyone who disagrees with you.

And now that opinion, apparently, is permanent. We'll see if it has any impact.