Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thoughts on thoughts: Dr. Carl Trueman, megaconferences, and the Reformed celebrity cult

Dr. Carl Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, has posted some very interesting thoughts up at reformation21 about so-called “Reformed” megaconferences sponsored and promoted here in America. Before relating some of Dr. Trueman’s insights, it is worth noting that his remarks are not the sour grape rants of a petulant wannabe who could only wish to have the kind of slice of fame, even for just 5 minutes as it were, that many of these “reformed” starlits enjoy. Dr. Trueman is probably one of the most educated and seriously enlightened Reformed thinkers on the scene today who not only knows Reformed theology and church life, but knows and can more than capably interact with contemporary intellectual currents. Instead of taking the route which most Reformed “intellectuals” do today, which is to publish in Christian sub-culture magazines which they themselves edit, or turn in one manuscript after another rehashing some previously written about topic, to small fish Reformed publishers in order to keep a steady pay-check coming in from the book sales to their zealous disciples, he actually puts out thoughtful, respectable works which either address real academic issues or advance contemporary Reformed discussions in significant ways. All this I throw out there so that no one will be easily prone to characterize and then summarily dismiss Dr. Trueman's remarks as the bitter sniping of the poor kid left standing on the sideline after teams were chosen up at a pick-up basketball game down at the local park.

Now, to Dr.Trueman’s “deep thoughts.” First he points out the all too obvious problem in American evangelicalism more broadly, and now a huge problem among conservative Reformed types, which is the problem of the celebrity cult. It turns out, that Reformed people, who once thought they were immune to the Billy Sunday’s of evangelicalism, actually now have their own, its just that they don’t have quite the same star power in the eyes of outsiders. Never mind that though, because the sad, but humorous thing is, that we don’t care about that as much as we do that he is “our” Billy Sunday. See, if a man gets enough headlines, publishes enough popular books, speaks at enough conferences, and can throw in a few good jokes while he is at it, well, eventually he can attain a certain level of celebrity status among the Reformed, as long as he is willing to coattail the fame of other evangelical celebrities such as John Piper or John MacArthur by speaking with them at various conferences and backslapping them and refusing to condemn their gross sin of being Anabaptists.

I wish Trueman had said these things at least 10 years ago, because I fear that the time for giving a fair hearing to his message about the celebrity cult is long past. Reformed sub-culture has not only constructed its own superapostles, it has become a veritable superapostle making factory. Many in our Reformed world have taken the cues and studied the lessons well of how the evangelicals built a vast evangelical sub-culture that capitalized on the desire for star power and have now reproduced that with incredible efficiency within the Reformed world. At one time in the Reformed community, we stood shoulder to shoulder in criticism against the appalling atrocities committed in the evangelical empire, simultaneously sounding the criticism and sneering in contempt as we made light of their folly. Now however, we have our celebrity cruises with your favorite superapostles, we have “megaconconferences,” and even some of our leading lights actually know the evangelical superstars on a first name basis and have had the opportunity to shake their hand! Isn’t progress grand? What is next, can you say “Reformation theme park!”?

The second thing worth noting in Dr. Trueman's post is the prescription he offers. One, don’t advertize the names of the people speaking at the conference, instead, advertize the subject matter of the conference. The novel idea he proposes is that people will be attracted to the content not the speaker. Here, I think we should cut Dr. Trueman some slack, after all, he is a foreigner: silly Brit, don’t you know that conferences are the only time that most Reformed people will have a chance to know what it feels like to be at a church related activity that has a megachurch feel and atmosphere, and don’t you know that conferences are the only chance we have to get up close, within 15 feet or so, of bona fide celebrities (even if just a celebrity of our making)? Great idea Dr. Trueman, but it will never work. Two, he proposes that conference organizers should consider inviting small fish, from small ponds to speak at the big conferences. His reasoning is basically, that the small fish pastor has a lot more in common with the rest of the folks he is speaking to on account of the fact that most pastors who waste their time going to conferences serve churches of a 100 people or less (give or take). As much as I appreciate new ideas, and Dr. Trueman has some good ones, this is one I think I will pass on. First, if you invite the small fish pastors and people enjoy what they hear, knowing the Reformed sub-culture, they will do everything they can to feverishly commence the work of preparing this poor small fish to be absorbed into the big sea of the Reformed celebrity cult. Second, this would only reinforce the all too common tendency found among many Reformed pastors now which is to dream about one day making it to the “big leagues.” Look at how many small fish there are out there “publishing” their paltry wares with Timbuktu Publishing House in hopes that one day, just one day, they will finally hit that big break and get a chance to be a warm-up act on the Reformed celebrity circuit. Bad idea Dr. Trueman, although I will concede that your heart is in the right place in what you propose.

Well, let me conclude my thoughts on Dr. Trueman’s thoughts by saying, “seriously!”? Has it really come to the point that we need a xeno to politely tell us Reformed people that somehow in fighting against evangelicalism, we have become like our enemy? I wish it were not so, but all indications are that we really need to turn this ship around or it won’t be long before we start printing the names of our talk shows and radio programs on coffee mugs and t-shirts. Oops, we already do that!