Thursday, May 20, 2010

The fascination with the sensational OR Whose story matters most?

R. Scott Clark has weighed in on the Ergun Caner mess. In case you don't know Ergun Caner is President of Liberty Baptist Seminary (one of the world's largest) in Lynchburg, VA. He is an author and well known preacher who has gained a lot of attention and made a lot of money by telling the dramatic story of his conversion from Jihad to Jesus. The problem is that it appears as if Dr. Caner has significantly exaggerated his biography. I posted about it Here. Carl Trueman has recently written some reflections on the situation HERE.

Anyway, Dr. Clark (Professor at Westminster Seminary California) makes the important observation that contemporary evangelicalism has created the ideal conditions in which an Ergun Caner can rise to popularity: a love for the sensational. Of course this is not new. Certainly during the so-called "Second Great Awakening" sensationalism and manipulation ruled the day under the leadership of revivalists like Charles Finney.

Dr. Clark grew up in a religious milieu very much like my own. Every year our church would hold the Fall and Spring "revivals." Well known (and sometimes lesser known) preachers would come with great fanfare. Some of them were good and faithful preachers. Others however were unfortunately too committed to using manipulative tactics to get as many people as possible to "walk the aisle." We were told dramatic stories by the preacher who would also use a bit of the Bible for good measure. We were told suicide stories, murder stories, disaster stories, and many personal stories and anecdotes from the preacher's own life. The whole thing would create the perfect atmosphere for "decisions."

This style of evangelism stems primarily from a lack of confidence in the preaching of God's Word. Certainly we cannot expect God to use the seemingly foolish means of preaching the seemingly foolish message of the cross and resurrection. We need flash, drama, and sensation.

Clark writes:

In the conversionist, revivalist, aisle-walking, just-as-I-am-singing piety in which Caner moves it is essential to have a good, colorful, compelling conversion story. The essence of both drama and comedy is tension. In comedy the tension is created and resolved in an unexpected and delightful way. In drama the tension is created and resolved in a compelling, affective way, i.e., in a way that moves the emotions to sadness or pity. The greater the contrast between “before” and “after,” the greater the tension and the more powerful the resolution.

In revivalist-conversionist circles, there is a great, unspoken pressure to heighten the tension by exaggerating one’s pre-conversion biography. In truth few of us have dramatic conversion stories. Certainly they exist but most of our pre-Christian lives are quite mundane. Sure, our families and lives were full of the dysfunction that sin brings but most sins are hidden from public and have relatively little entertainment value. It is, however, a lot easier to get a crowd worked up and sweaty and ready to walk the aisle during the invitation if the testimony includes some juicy details. Hence the embellishment...

The moral of the Caner saga is not one of Calvinist (or even Muslim) conspiracies but one of the subtle pressure to conform to a religious culture, a piety, and expectations created by the conversionist paradigm. The dramatic story we Christians have to tell, however, isn’t, in the first instance, about us at all. In the first instance, the story we have to tell is about God the Son incarnate, about his obedience for us and his mercy to us. The subject of our story is not “we” or “I” but “He,” that is the God who saved us in Christ. Yes, we are, by grace alone, through faith alone, now a part of that story. Jesus is our federal head. He acted for us and now that he has made us alive (sola gratia) by his Spirit, who operates through the preaching of gospel narrative, and has by faith alone (sola fide) united us to Christ by his Spirit that story is our story.

Read the entire article HERE.

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