Have you ever been frustrated at the prevalent disregard Americans show toward experts in fields that laypeople otherwise know nothing about? Joe Average who thinks he knows as much about the political system as the most educated person on Capitol Hill, Betty Bologna who refuses to listen to anyone on a subject now that she has read one blog post about it, or Conspiracy Corey who posts 15 obscure Facebook links a day from random corners of the internet – sure that he’s discovered the secret nobody else knows?
Well, Tom Nichols became frustrated enough that he wrote a book about it. The Death of Expertise is an important book which tries to tackle the issue of not only of why Americans can’t seem to dialogue anymore, but why we actually despise those who have expertise in fields that we do not. The argument is relatively simple: we don’t respect people who have more expertise than us anymore. As Nichols says it, “Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be equal to anyone else’s (p. 5).” Despite all of the advancements we have made as a society, “the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else…we now live in a society where the acquisition of even a little learning is the endpoint, rather than the beginning, of education. And this is a dangerous thing (p. 7).”
I agree. And as I set out to read the book, I couldn’t help but be struck at how accurately Nichols describes the predicament of American churches and Christians. There is an increasingly nasty disposition American Christians have toward one another, especially those who claim (rightly) a better understanding of the faith than they do. This is not only true of lay Christians toward pastors, leaders and scholars, but it is true between lay people themselves. The older and wiser saint no longer carries the respect of the youth which Scripture says is good and necessary for the health of the church (Leviticus 19:32, 1 Timothy 5:1-2, etc.). Trained leaders are despised for their instruction, rather than being honored for the position and charge God has given them (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 1 Timothy 5:17-18, etc.)
One section of Death in particular has struck me in how much it applies to the state of the American Church, and that is the chapter on American higher education. It is in this chapter that Nichols attributes much of the “death of expertise” in America to the higher education system. As I read this chapter, I couldn’t help but find parallel after parallel between the problems besetting higher education and the American Church. I want to focus on three for the remainder of this post: The Sold Experience, Over Saturation, and Over Inflation.
- The Sold Experience
Although higher education was originally a place for the select few privileged people who could both afford the tuition and compete academically for their place in the school, “today attendance at postsecondary institutions is a mass experience (p. 71).” It is now the expectation that most people will – and everybody should attend college. Whereas obtaining a college degree once separated those with educational achievement from those without, this is no longer the case. The reality is however, that not everyone can or should make the cut to attend a college or university. But as higher education has become a product for the masses, it no longer guarantees a “college education” but instead a full-time experience of “going to college” (p. 72).
In other words, there is an increasing commodification of education. Students are not treated as such but instead are treated as clients. Those schools which know that they can’t compete for the highest tier of students instead focus on giving people what they want: a four-year getaway complete with apartment-style housing, state of the art recreation centers and Four-Star dining.
With remarkable similarities in many so-called churches in America, Christianity is no longer a system of beliefs and truths to know and be internalized but instead it has become an experience to share with others. Those churches which do not trust in the God-given means of conversion and growth (the preached Word, Sacraments) instead turn to selling an experience to attract the masses.
I recently went to the website of one very popular mega-church in my area to see what they believed and taught. It was extremely difficult to find a page that lists the church’s beliefs, and when I could, it was so generic and ambiguous that I could hardly distinguish it from a self-help center. Instead, the main page flooded me with information about their live-streaming services and the friendly, convenient experience I could have from the comforts of my own home. The “About Us” page contained testimonials – dare I say user testimonials – about how their life had changed since they bought the experience the church had sold them. I wasn’t quite sure if I was on a church website or something for essential oils (these days it seems like it could be one and the same).
Or consider the pamphlet I found in my mailbox for another local “church” which offered me a free week pass for my kids to attend their amazing indoor playground and recreation center. If I would just attend their church, my kids would have so much FUN while I would be ENERGIZED by the experience I’ll have. What does the church actually believe? Who knows, but at least I’ll have fun, right?
While these stories are anecdotal, we all know that these kinds of examples aren’t hard to find. When congregants become consumers, the Christianity they drink from is a watered-down and tasteless variant. The difficult task of confessional and Bible-teaching churches is to convince these people that even though they’ve shared in some generic barely-Christian experience, they haven’t yet tasted the real thing. This is often harder to do than just giving people the real thing in the first place.
Tell such a person that what they’ve bought into is unhealthy – often not even Christian – and the response is one grounded in experience and not Scripture. “My faith has grown tremendously through this, doesn’t that matter? People come into the faith through this, so who are you to say it’s wrong?” Well, if by faith you mean an ambiguous pseudo-Christian experience that they now sort of share with you, then I suppose you’re right. But if you mean an acceptance of the truths of the Triune God, the historic work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, the depths of our sins, and an application of Christ’s benefits to us – then I’m afraid you’d be terribly wrong.
After all, none of these things matter so long as you’ve bought into the shared experience of the “Christian” product of the masses.
- Over Saturation
If you can’t win people with their need for a robust and intense education, then you can certainly win them with a four-year getaway with their friends. If you can’t win people by preaching and singing the truths of the Scriptures every week, then you can certainly win them by promising they’ll have fun. Most of the time.
However, as the experience is bought up by the masses then the population becomes saturated with people who think they’ve obtained something they actually have not. Nichols points out how small state colleges and schools try to sell students into believing they’re paying for something that is actually a higher-tier product. They offer degree programs that they really aren’t qualified to teach – not only at the undergraduate levels, but at the graduate and doctoral levels as well. The problem here is when underqualified schools offer courses and degree programs as though they are equivalent to their better-known counterparts. Although there is a large quality gap between a competitive university and a “rebranded” smaller school, the student with the lesser-quality degree believes they have actually achieved the same degree as the student from the competitive university. If two students from two different schools have the same degree (even if it is in name only), how could your degree be better than mine? My view and opinion is just as important as yours – we have the same degree…even if my degree was from an unqualified and (perhaps) unaccredited program (p. 92).
The American Christian experience is facing a relatively similar phenomenon. Is every church the same? No. Does every church believe the same things? Not at all. Are all churches as rigorous for their demands from members or the education of their leaders? No. Yet, more and more, just because someone bought into the generic Christian experience they believe their opinion counts just as much as anyone else’s. The person who attends a non-denominational and entertainment-driven church once a month and who barely reads their Bible flaunts their opinion even more strongly than the 65-year-old woman who has attended church every Sunday and has studied the Bible daily under the tutelage of her pastors for generations. The individual who only knows enough out-of-context Scripture from the Gospels to proof text his or her views on social issues knows just as much about Christian ethics as the individual who could outline and quote extensively from numerous books of the Bible. The non-educated and untrained pastor believes their interpretation to be as valid as the pastor with two advanced degrees simply because they share a similar title.
This is absolutely ludicrous, and yet, it makes sense if one judges being Christian not off of beliefs held but an experience that is shared.
- Over Inflation
When college becomes an experience to be sold rather than a degree to be earned and the population becomes saturated with individuals buying up the product, then the business needs to carry to the client. At the university level, this means the student is always right – even when it comes to their grades.
As Nichols points out, as the cost for the college experience goes up, so too does the demand for better grades. Students who graduate with a high GPA no longer reflect their level of education or intellectual achievement. A study of two hundred colleges and universities through 2009 found that A was the most commonly given grade. Grades in the A and B range now account for more than 80 percent of all grades in all subjects. In 2012, the most frequently given grade at Harvard was a straight A. At Yale, more than 60 percent of all grades are either A or A-. High grades are now rewarded not for academic achievement, but simply for course completion (pp. 94-95).
And so, in similar fashion, as the Sunday church service becomes an experience to be sold and the population becomes saturated with individuals who have bought into a shared experience, the business starts to cater to the client. Give the people what they want – fun, entertainment, positivity. Tell people how good they are in a bigger, louder, faster and sleeker fashion. Stay away from the stuff that turns people away – sin, consequences, repentance, and divisive topics.
Fortunately, this is where the similarities end and we find a major difference between the American church and university. Church leaders and pastors may believe they’re able to come up with new and ingenious ways to grow churches and sell the Christian experience, but ultimately all of these means will fail. We may try to do what we think is best to grow numbers and get more people into seats, but ultimately it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Christ builds his church, not the “wisdom” of man.
So, perhaps, if we want more people to share in the faith which we hold, we should stop selling them some generic notion of a common experience. Instead, let’s give them the full and wonderful truths about our God, about ourselves, and our glorious savior which the Bible so beautifully lays out for us. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25).”
But then again, what do I know? Your opinion is probably just as good as mine.
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My brother will forever be one of my heroes.
Joe Hein was a tireless humanitarian. Skilled in business, he instead spent many of his years relentlessly advocating for the less fortunate. Joe spent some time as a peace-keeper in Bosnia during the crisis there. While he was in the United States, he worked for a senator and strongly advocated for reading programs for underprivileged students in the inner city of Washington D.C. He also worked hard to get similar programs started on Native American Reservations in South Dakota. This was a man who didn’t have much, but emptied his wallet every time he passed a homeless person on the streets. Charming, intelligent, gentle, kind and attractive – Joe Hein was looked up to by others for inspiration and hope.
More importantly, he was the best older brother I ever could’ve asked for. He was 17 years my senior, which meant that he was graduating high school and leaving the house around the time I was born. As far back as I can remember, my brother had something of a “legend” status in my head. When he came home from college, his older brother game was always on point. He taught me how to read a clock, and he encouraged me to read with bribes. He played basketball with me in the driveway, and took me out to train as a skee-ball champion at Chuck E. Cheese. He trained me up in the ways of Dallas Cowboy fandom. He wasn’t afraid to show me physical affection, and he modeled compassion and mercy for me when he took me to serve in homeless shelters with him.
On April 25, 2000, we lost my brother to the monster called depression. Even the strongest and bravest knights can fall to this beast.
Depression has seen increasing awareness in recent years – and for good reason. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 18% of the U.S. population suffers from some kind of anxiety-depression disorder. Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability between ages 15 to 44, affecting 15 million people (about 7% of the population). Of course, these are conservative statistics as many who are silently suffering don’t come forward to ask for help.
Yet, despite all of the advancements in awareness and treatment, depression still has something of a stigma in our general culture. It is rarely talked about; and our silence encourages sufferers to persist in silence. Silence perpetuates shame, and shame perpetuates depression. It is a vicious cycle which many people fear they can never escape.
Perhaps part of the problem is we don’t like the fact that depression does not fit neatly into one paradigm. It’s not as simple as positive thinking. Many individuals will still struggle even after receiving years of the best counseling available. While medicine can be of great benefit to some, it can also make symptoms worse. As a Christian, I believe the message of the gospel offers great hope to sufferers of depression. Yet I also know that it’s not as simple as “take two doses of John 3:16 and call me in the morning.” The Bible doesn’t paint the human experience so naively and neither should we.
In fact, I think the Bible gives us much wisdom and insight into better caring for those who suffer from depression. In memory of my brother and – in the hopes that as a result of his death I may be able to help others who suffer as he once did – I want to offer a few pieces of this wisdom to you in the remainder of this article.
First, the Bible presents us with a robust understanding of the human being. Depression is often met with one of two extreme solutions today. The first is a hyper-physical view of the person: all our problems are either medical issues within the body or originate from not having our physical needs (food, sleep, sex, etc.) met. The second view is a hyper-spiritual one, which centers our problems in our wrong beliefs about ourselves. If we think/feel/believe more positive things about ourselves, our issues (i.e. depression, etc.) will go away.
In the middle of these two extremes is the biblical view of the person. Commonly referred to as the dichotomist view, the Bible presents the human being as both material and immaterial, both a physical and a spiritual being. Some might call us an “embodied soul” – a term I really like. There are many places in Scripture which show this view, but I will just highlight a few of them:
- God made man out of two substances, dust and spirit (Genesis 2:7).
- As Christians, when we die our bodies return to the ground but our spirits return to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
- Christ summarizes the person as both body and soul (Matthew 10:28).
Paul, in his defense of the resurrection, cannot comprehend of a person without a corporeal nature (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).
What does this mean for us? It means that we should expect suffering like depression to have both physical and spiritual symptoms. It means we need to labor hard to care for the entire person, and not just a part. It means we shouldn’t try to neatly fit out friends into a one-size-fits-all paradigm.
It also means we must distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms. This is important for two reasons: 1) because we do not want to hold people morally responsible for a physical symptom, and 2) we do not want to excuse spiritual problems or lose hope for spiritual growth when there has been a psychiatric or physical diagnosis. Here are some examples of what it might look like to distinguish between physical and spiritual symptoms for someone who is going through depression.
Insomnia or hypersomnia
Secondly, the Bible reminds us of the painful realities of life. The world isn’t sunshine and rainbows for anybody. Many of us want a quick solution that will fix our many problems and struggles. Some people will even sell Christianity to you in that way – as if confessing belief in Christ will make all your problems go away.
Yet the Bible doesn’t give us a quick solution, nor does it fool us into believing that following God leads to an easy life. In fact, the greatest heroes of the Christian faith all suffered immense physical and spiritual torment. Moses doubted his call as a prophet and was often chastised or even betrayed by his family and the Israelites. After defeating the prophets of Baal, Elijah retreated into the wilderness by himself (in an episode strangely similar to depression) and wished death upon himself (1 Kings 19:1-18). Jesus was a man of much sorrow (Isaiah 53:3), and after being betrayed and abandoned by his 12 closest friends he cried out to his Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46)?” The Apostle Paul, having faced much suffering, despaired even of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Why does this matter? Knowing the realities of this life, we are able to have compassion on people in the midst of their suffering and trials. Rather than giving them platitudes which we know won’t help, we can meet them with hope and strength to persevere to the end, even if the darkness never lifts in this life. Which brings me to my last point.
Finally, Christianity offers us real hope. Clearly I don’t mean the kind of hope which says, “Believe this and your depression will go away.” I’ve met many people whose faith has transformed their struggles with depression; I’ve met many people who have still needed years of counseling and medicine to coincide with their Christian faith. So what kind of hope do I mean?
The Bible teaches us that when we confess saving faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, we are adopted into the eternal family of God. Adoption is the height of our privilege as God’s people. This doctrine reminds us that in our salvation we are brought into a family. While we were formerly separate from God and walking in darkness, we are now “called children of God, and so we are” (1 John 3:1). As we become sons and daughters in our vertical relationship to God, we become brothers and sisters in our horizontal relationship to one another.
Our society today wants us to believe that our worth and value is based on our own decisions and merit. Our surround culture says that worth and value are measured by our job performance, our charity and good deeds, or even our sexuality. If we haven’t found our worth in these things, then we need to keep looking until we’re fulfilled. Is it any wonder that depression is on the rise with each passing year? Failing to achieve these standards of worth only sets us up for doubt and disappointment.
In stark contrast, the Christian knows that their worth or merit is not found in themselves, but it is found in the very fact that they belong to a loving Father. Even when we don’t believe it, even when we don’t want to believe it – it’s still true. Once we’re adopted into the family of God we bear his stamp forever upon us, a stamp which reads: loved, valued, precious, beautiful, created with purpose, a child with full access to all the rights and privileges of a son or daughter of God. It’s a bit of a mouthful.
This is a hope that points us away from the things we’ve chosen to give us purpose and define us, and towards the only title which we need to give us purpose: child of God.
When we properly understand what it means to be adopted into the family of God, we know that we can’t abandon our brothers or sisters to face their struggles alone. Because our worth is found not in the things of this world but in the arms of a loving father, there is no effort, no amount of time, no amount of love that is too much for the people of God to give to those in our midst going through any kind of struggle. That is simply what family does; they care for and love one another when all other lights go out.
So, what can you do to help people struggling with depression that you know? I’d like to offer six things:
- Read this article I wrote. This isn’t shameful self-promotion, but I know many people who have been greatly helped by the material in this article. It is a much more in-depth approach to some of what you’ve already read here.
- Pray. Pray for them, pray for your own heart. Pray that God would lift them out of the mire, and give you a greater compassion for their particular kind of suffering – especially if you haven’t struggled with depression yourself.
- Listen. Be Present. Often, bearing each other’s burdens looks less like speaking and simply lending a listening ear and a bodily present. Simple, small reminders go a long way (“You’re not alone”, “I’m here”, “It’s not your fault”).
- Offer your service, not answers. It’s impossible for us to have the answer and solution for someone else’s depression. But, you can offer yourself as an aid during their struggle. Ask them, “What can I do to serve you?”, or “Can I go with you?” (to their counseling sessions, should they be in counseling). Counseling can often be more effective when someone you trust comes with you.
- When the time is right, encourage them with the gospel. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If we suffer, we suffer with Christ; if we rejoice we should rejoice with him. Bodily pain should help us to understand the cross, and mental depression should make us apt scholars at Gethsemane.” Remind our friends who are struggling that our suffering confirms our adoption and status as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), that we have a savior who knows the pain and struggle that we are going through and meets us in our pain and need.
- Ask the hard questions. Even though it may be difficult or awkward, don’t shy away from the hard questions. “What kind of thoughts are you having?” and “Have you thought about hurting yourself?” are important questions to ask when people are going through depression. If they have thought about bringing themselves physical harm, then it is important to pursue immediate help through their counselor or some other means. Contact your pastor, their counselor or other family that can help during this time.
Finally, if you or someone you know are going through depression at this time, I want to highly recommend this book to you.
The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans (specifically Romans 1:18-32) are familiar to most Christians. This opening argument in Paul’s discourse is one that sticks out in our heads particularly because of the way it confronts our very idea of what it means to be a created being living under the rule of our holy Creator. Our most basic conceptions of authority, morality, the human condition and idolatry are all deeply challenged in these few verses. What makes this section of Paul’s letter especially biting is that the longer we meditate on it, the deeper it cuts to the heart of the problem: it is our very heart that is the problem.
The thrust of Paul’s argument in this opening section to his letter is simple: God is creator and he alone is worthy to be worshipped and praised, but we humans turn created things into objects to be worshipped. We all know better – for the entire cosmos cries out to the power and glory of our Creator – but we cannot help but go our own way and chase our own idols.
What idols are you chasing? Power? Money? An Instagram-perfect marriage? Reputation? The Romans 1 reality is that the longer we search ourselves, the more idols we will find. Often it is those we suspect less that have the deepest grips on our hearts.
I have come to the realization that for the last several years I have chased the idol of the ideal: the ideal income, the ideal house, the ideal work-life balance. My most selfishly and deviously disguised idol has been that of the ideal church; the place that would run exactly as I think it should, where everyone would believe exactly what I believe, and where everything would go exactly as I think it should.
Most Christians chase the idol of the ideal church to one extent or another. When we begin to feel unfulfilled by a church community, when conflicts begin to arise, or when we simply don’t like the music – we all feel that question arise from deep within us: “So I guess I should leave?”
However, I think this temptation might actually be more severe for those who have committed to a life in vocational ministry. I think the reason is pretty obvious. Many of us spend countless hours in classes and reading books on church leadership and government. We develop strong opinions about how things should go when we hear lessons from mentors we look up to. And so, as we chase our idols of the ideal, we mask it with “holy” words like polity or philosophy of ministry. We develop abstract arguments and tell ourselves that if a church’s elder meetings don’t look exactly like the Jerusalem Council, then it must not be a very good church. Oh, how we claim to be wise but instead reveal ourselves to be fools (Romans 1:22).
I know how to mask my idol of the ideal church well – in fact, I think I’ve become quite the expert at it. Having served in three churches now which all fall on a very wide spectrum, I’ve seen the strength’s and weaknesses of multiple approaches to ministry. With a critical eye I look at other churches and think, “Fools. If only they did it this way, all their problems would go away. If only they had a better system, nobody would have gotten hurt.”
As I’ve been on my perpetual chase for the idol of the ideal, I’ve pursued the perfect system. The system where everything in the church goes smoothly and perfectly. The place where nobody would be able to hurt or wound someone else because the system would protect them. The church where every sermon would be completely and perfectly doctrinally sound because the confessions and catechisms would make it so. In other words, the system where knowledge rids a church of its sin and weaknesses.
However, the truth is that knowledge is not our problem. Knowledge can no sooner rid someone of her sin as it can rid a church of sinners. Knowledge cannot produce change at the deepest fibers of someone’s being; knowledge cannot restore a broken heart; knowledge cannot bring dead people back to life.
Only love can do that.
So we find that our never-ending chase for our idol of the ideal only ends in death. Death to ourselves, and the death of Another who gave himself up in love.
I must confess that this idol runs far deeper than I yet know. But here is what I do know: systems won’t fix sinners, and systems won’t fix churches. Only love can do that; a kind of love which is only found in a Shepherd who gave up his life to serve the people whom he loves and restore their affections for their Creator (Mark 10:45).
What does that mean for me? It means it is time to forsake my chase for the ideal. It is time to pray for an increasing desire to serve a broken, messed up, and deeply flawed church; where I can seek to model Christ’s love for them as I come to understand better his love for a broken, messed up, and deeply flawed sinner like me.
This excerpt is taken from The Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2: Systematic Theology, Chapter 23.
This progression (of sanctification) has respect, not only to the individual, but also to the church in its unity and solidarity as the body of Christ. In reality the growth of the individual does not take place except in the fellowship of the church as the fellowship of the Spirit. Believers have never existed as independent units. In God’s eternal counsel they were chosen in Christ (Ephesians 1:14); in the accomplishment of their redemption they were in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Ephesians 1:17); in the application of redemption they are ushered into the fellowship of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9). And sanctification itself is a process that moves to a consummation which will not be realized for the individual until the whole body of Christ is complete and presented in its totality faultless and without blemish. This points up the necessity of cultivating and promoting the sanctification of the whole body, and the practical implications for responsibility, privilege, and opportunity become apparent.
If the individual is indifferent to the sanctification of others, and does not seek to promote their growth in grace, love, faith, knowledge, obedience and holiness, this interferes with his own sanctification in at least two respects. 1) His lack of concern for others is itself a vice that gnaws at the root of spiritual growth. If we are not concerned with, or vigilant in respect of the fruit of the Spirit in others, then it is because we do not burn with holy zeal for the honor of Christ himself. All shortcoming and sin in us dishonors Christ, and a believer betrays the coldness of his love to Christ when he fails to bemoan the defects of those who are members of Christ’s body. 2) His indifference to the interests of others means the absence of the ministry which he should have afforded others. This absence results in the impoverishment of these others to the extent of his failure, and this impoverishment reacts upon himself, because these others are not able to minister to him to the full extent of the support, encouragement, instruction, edification and exhortation which they owe to him.
We see, therefore, the endless respects in which interaction and intercommunication within the fellowship of the saints are brought to bear upon the progressive sanctification of the people of God. “If one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it; and if one member is honored, all the others rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). The truth of our inter-dependence within the solidarity of the body of Christ exposes the peril and contradiction of exclusive absorption in our own individual sanctification. How eloquent of the virtue which is the antonym of independence and aloofness are the words of the apostle: “And he (Christ) gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints unto the work of the ministry, unto the edifying of the body of Christ; until we all come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”! (Ephesians 4:11-13; Romans 12:4ff.; 1 Corinthians 12:12ff.; Colossians 2:19).