Worry Warts

Michael Metzger

The British historian A. J. P. Taylor said the Enlightenment is still interesting only to those who are still worried about Christianity. The Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot turned 300 on Saturday, October 5th. But only Worry Worts found this interesting since they worry about how the Enlightenment is deforming today’s church.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with Diderot. A Frenchman, he was born 1713 and died in 1784. Diderot preached the right of the individual to determine the course of his or her life apart from received authorities – be they religious, political or societal. His suspicion of institutional authority infected a group of 19th century disciples. Diderot’s writing inspired the likes of Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Hegel read Diderot and developed what is called “Hegelian idealism,” the assumption that ideas, in and of themselves, have legs and move history. If people get the right ideas in their head, they’ll act the right way. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.”

Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche read Diderot. They became what Pope John Paul II called the “masters of suspicion,” an expression he borrowed from Paul Ricoeur. These men fostered an age of doubt and suspicion, rendering Westerners suspicious of any sort of religion. They didn’t disavow the existence of faith – they simply relegated it to the private life, or what Nietzsche dismissed as “values.”

Worry Warts share a concern about all this. J. R. Williams introduced the original Worry Wart in 1956 in his comic strip “Out Our Way.” Worry Wart wasn’t concerned for himself. In fact, it was just the opposite. Worry Wart tried to get others to be concerned about a way of life that was slipping away. In the comic strip, Worry Wart was concerned about the erosion of family life, industriousness, and the Old West.

In religious circles, Worry Warts are concerned about the health of the church. They include Lesslie Newbigin, who noted how “Christian missions were, in fact, among the main carriers of the ideas of the Enlightenment.” He said American churches have “come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment.”1 They share the Enlightenment assumption that the core of a person’s being is their cranium. If we cram enough doctrine into a believer’s head, they’ll act the right way. Behavioral studies indicate otherwise. This is probably why the rates at which Christians watch porn, commit illicit affairs, or get divorced are roughly equivalent to those who claim no faith.

This inconvenient truth is why another Worry Wart, Dallas Willard, wrote that the “Western” segment of the church “lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship.”2 Hegelian idealism has turned the ancient art of hands-on mentoring into theorists expounding on abstractions. They teach principles and concepts while students dutifully take notes. Willard said this accounts for “the practical irrelevance of actual obedience to Christ” and “the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today.”3 It’s weakened because, in and of themselves, ideas don’t move the world.

“The Protestant tradition has taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to the Enlightenment than it does to a holistic, biblical vision of human persons,” writes James K. A. Smith, another Worry Wart.4 Smith says that the church’s approach to formation is nothing more than information, an approach that “basically runs along Platonic lines.” When cultures prove to be antagonistic, the church responds by teaching “worldviews” and “trying to fill our heads with ideas and beliefs.”

Idealism, individualism, and suspicion of institutional authority are three reasons why Philip Jenkins, another Worry Wart, believes that churches in the West “are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been.”5 The Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, Jenkins writes, “the particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm.”6 A faith tradition that departs from the historical norm should be worrisome to all Christians, not just Worry Warts.

Lesslie Newbigin noted that for more than two centuries, the Enlightenment “provided the framework in which Western churches have understood their missionary task.” He warned, “to continue to think in the familiar terms is now folly.”7 The same year Worry Wart was introduced – 1956 – Alfred E. Neuman debuted on the cover of Mad magazine. His signature phrase – “What, me worry?” – made fun of human folly. Too often, Western churches continue to think in Enlightenment terms that are sheer folly. It’s nothing to laugh about. If the church paid attention to Worry Warts, it too would be interested in Diderot and how the Enlightenment relegated the faith to the sidelines.

1 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 33.
2 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 214.
3 Willard, Conspiracy, p. xv.
4 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 31.
5 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, pp. 18-20.
6 Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008), p. 3.
7 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 5.


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  1. You know I love you Mike, and that you’re limited by being forced to be brief within the confines of your blog entry, but there are so many points at which I just can’t buy what you’re saying. I do appreciate the sense of your calling out head-knowledge as inadequate vs. body-life or how actions within movements of people, like the church, require strengthened networks with institution-type leadership. (That was a short-hand sentence if there ever was one.) But I think the Enlightenment is under-rated, not over-rated. The way we “do” society and church body life is constantly changing, and therefore so are how we define the good things that happen in it and the weak things. Every good thing – if not changing or evolving – eventually becomes a weakness. Just one example: with the post-WWII higher-ed boom, we’re bound to absorb a lot of good with a measure of bad – it’s almost as if we went through another enlightenment. A newly ideas-saturated culture drove thousands (millions?) into missions driven by the sense that The Word just needed legs – young college educated legs – and you and I have been four of those legs. We defied old-school dull churchy missions. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. You’re probably going to say I missed every point you made. I’m sensitive to group-think and the failure to appreciate change agents in a very sheepish trend-oriented culture. I love moving Hunter’s understanding of valuing institutional leadership, but even they need to get off the dime and be moved. “Masters of suspicion” have a place – let them speak up – they’re the bull-crap meters we need to keep us from falling asleep at the wheel.

  2. Mike,

    I hit me when reading your blog that the Enlightenment believed in “know the truth and the truth will set you free”.

    The folly of the Enlightenment, as with the Pharisees, was defining “know the truth” as an individual knowing facts – being able to give a right answer – as if the key to human flourishing was nothing more than a mathematical equation to be solved, which is often how the Gospel is presented to this day.

    The folly of the Enlightenment continued by defining “set you free” as freedom from all authority, including God, but unconcerned with bondage to Satan, Sin, and Death. Thus the Pharisees said to God the Son that they have never been in bondage to anyone (especially not Him).

    It is another episode in human history of the carnal mind touching spiritual truth and perverting it into something that has a form of godliness yet denying its power, thus deceiving many, including many in the Church.

  3. A great, great piece, Mike. Sure some good came from Enlightenment rationalism, but Christians need to be nurtured in the wise discernment about idols and ideologies. Your warnings have been good, and this was yet another excellent way into this process of learning to discern the dangers of pagan worldviews. Excellent.

    And, I never knew that the “worry wart” was a cartoon character. You never cease to amaze me with what details of social history you know and share with such ease. Thanks.

  4. Is this just another example of a ‘Western’ mind set that sees ‘language’ as a key to change? Disregarding the physical, emotional, spiritual and volitional aspects of our persona. Individual faith is often a response to the pain of no space in a ‘Western church mentality’ The Romanisation of the Celtic church.

  5. Mike…I think I’ve read enough of your work to anticipate somewhat your answer to this question….but I am not fully sure, so here goes. If I am reading you correctly, you and your sources would say that the expression of church we see today is a departure from the 1400 years before that.

    OK…so in real specific terms, what should the church look like? What, in a given normal American city, should it look like? Paid staff or no paid staff? Sunday service or no Sunday service? Preaching or no preaching? Singing or no singing?

    I think the church, like a lot of American institutions are broken (And a huge reason why the country is in decline), but I should do more than just say “broken.” I should offer a clear solution.

    What is your solution?

  6. Carl:

    Great question. For starters, measure the right things to determine success (or effectiveness). In exile, the Judeans measured success according to Jeremiah 29:7 – “as the Babylonians flourish, so shall you.” Translation: To the degree that the center institutions in your city take the gospel seriously and act on it, to this degree your church flourishes. Example: I live near Annapolis. The United States Naval Academy is one of the city’s center institutions. If you look over the curriculum, the USNA does not take the gospel seriously, nor is it acting on it. Religion is relegated to “ECA” – extracurricular activities allowed on a given evening of the week. The church in exile would measure its flourishing according to abolishing such things as ECAs and being invited by the Provost to rewrite the curriculum. Of course, to accomplish this, the church would have to learn the language of the street (or the USNA) – which is what the Judeans had to do first in exile (Daniel 1).

    This does not appear to be how the Western church operates. It measures it success by size (attendance), the number of people in Bible studies (or “home groups”), and its budget. These things have no necessary relationship to flourishing.

    In closing, Edgar Schein (MIT) says you can learn the true mission of any organization by simply listening to the initial (and unedited) comments that roll off employees’ tongues. Try this experiment, Carl. Ask someone about their church. If the first thing they say is: “We’re really growing!” – then the actual mission is really growing. Forget the elaborate mission statement. If the first thing a parishioner says is: “We’ve got 1500 coming!” – then the actual mission is 1500 in attendance. The church I am describing would say, “Hmmmm… it depends on how the USNA is doing. We’ll know in 30 years.”

  7. Carl:

    I overlooked your question regarding staffing. When the University of Michigan hired Brady Hoke as its football coach, the first thing Brady did was replace the staff. UM was adopting a pro-style offense and needed coaches who could train players to operate (flourish) in that system. The church in exile benefits from staff who can help practitioners bring about the flourishing of their city. In my USNA example, this means church staff assist those who work at USNA (and go to their church) in getting the Naval Academy to take the gospel seriously and act on it. To accomplish this, believers have to know how to get a foot in the door in order to one day get a place at the Provost’s table. This requires translating scripture into street (or USNA) language. Church staff would train practitioners to do this. Know any?

    In my limited experience, churches hire staff to “meet the needs” of parishioners, contributing to what Tim Keller says is plaguing today’s church: consumerism. Those “needs” are met by “getting involved” in the church, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good thing if “getting involved” means forming teams that benchmark flourishing by something like this: “as our city’s center institutions flourish, so do we as a church.” Tragically, in the case of most churches, this is not the case. “Getting involved” means “getting in a small group” where Christians share, fellowship, and study the Bible. These activities are necessary but insufficient for producing a “flourishing faith” according to Jeremiah 29:7. Few church staff recognize this because they are products of a seminary system that trained them to measure success by what Dallas Willard called the ABCs – attendance, building, and cash. Church staff generally have little to no experience in getting a foot in the door and a place at the table at the USNA. I’d hire staff who can assist practitioners in translating the faith in the workaday world.

  8. Is there a false premise that a tension should exist between the ‘church’ and the ‘world’ that ignores intricacy and complexity of individual journeys in a community. Each pioneering a path that our earthen vessel walks in contrast to a clone factory of spirituality. A change of individual heart should not be supplanted by a cultural transformation of religion.

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