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On Christian Cynicism

If you were to look up cynicism in the dictionary (or Wikipedia), you will read that the contemporary form is characterized as a general distrust of people—a lack of faith in others because of their naiveté—resulting in a continual flow of ridicule and scorn.

This cynicism manifests itself out of frustration with persons, institutions, organizations, and authorities that have left her victims disillusioned and angry. Cynics feel cheated, robbed, lied to, and taken advantage of.

I have personally experienced this “jaded negativity” and the pitiful pit of cynical despair after having spent 7 years in ministry, and coming to terms with many ugly realities of organized Christianity.

When I finally realized that I had been raised in fundamentalism, served in fundamentalist churches, and that pop-culture Christianity in America was a thousand miles wide but about an inch deep… I was angry.

No, that’s an understatement.

I was bitterly frustrated to the point of giving up.

Reveling in Cynicism

Truth be told… I left fundamentalism, but reveled in cynicism for a time.

I must admit that there was something strangely comforting being able to criticize and scrutinize from the outside looking in on what was clearly wrong with the church. I was safe and guarded against more pain.

It protected me from being hurt again, but it also kept me from people—all those for whom Jesus died—including religious hypocrites.

I knew deep down that my cynicism was a sickness. And I wanted healing.

I saw the harmful effects of social networks forming online just for Christian cynics. I found folks declaring themselves “free” from religion, but they were mostly a bitter believer’s club throwing salt on open wounds.

Christian cynicism can completely immobilize followers of Jesus.

Cynicism can even keep the Christian from ever recovering again.

It’s true. If cynic-saints are not intentional about moving forward in Christ to a renewed place of life in the Kingdom, they will forfeit their inheritance.

Let’s be done with the reveling and embrace resurrection.

Trading Cynicism for Hopeful Realism

Do you know any Christian cynics? Are you a Christian cynic?

You need to know that healing can come if you keep your heart open to Christ and your feet moving in the direction of his love for you and others.

This doesn’t mean that you forget what you’ve learned, what’s been revealed to you by Christ, or the reality of the current state of affairs. It doesn’t mean that you set aside your doubts and uncertainty. It doesn’t mean you must compromise your convictions.

But it does mean that you allow the Lord to shine a light on the darkness that is overcoming the living hope of Christ within you, and that is keeping that hope from being fully expressed as resurrection life to others.

You cannot faithfully follow Christ and harbor bitterness toward any segment of the church. Imagining that certain groups or that organized Christianity is not the true church doesn’t justify this behavior.

Be loving, patient, kind, forgiving, and compassionate as Christ. There’s no room for cynicism in Christ. Give it up. It’s killing you. And it’s hurting the Body of Christ. You can’t effect change this way.

Let the Lord have your cynicism. Trade it in for hopeful realism.

What is hopeful realism? It’s Christ getting the last word on the matter. It’s reality being confronted by the Kingdom of God. It’s new life in the face of death. It allows us to see a world poised for resurrection.

Healing for the Cynic-Saint

In his book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (IVP 2011), Andrew Byers writes:

“We are in dire need for redeemed cynics to dress their wounds that they may rise up and flourish in the truths revealed to them for the health of the church and for the glory of God.” (p. 12)

I have reviewed Andy’s book and interviewed him here at the blog. His book offers a great help to those looking for a way out of their cynicism.

It’s not going to be easy, but if healing is going to come to the cynic-saint, he must take his hands out of the festering wound and let Jesus dress it with his loving kindness. He’s the great healer.

We need the keen insight and revitalized faith that redeemed cynics can bring to a struggling church. And we need it now more than ever.

Please don’t abandon the Lord’s work for self-absorbed cynicism or an idealistic pipedream for the church. Be intentional in rising above it.

Let the Lord reveal new possibilities to you. Allow him to show you his power and ability to resurrect the dead and dying parts of you, the church, and the world. Ask him. He will do it.

Remember that you are loved, you are missed, and you are needed.

Do you want to trade your cynicism in for a renewed hope and vision for Christ and his Kingdom? What intentional steps can you make today to embrace hopeful realism? Commit today to moving forward.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Q&A with Andrew Byers

Andrew Byers is the author of the recently released book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (InterVarsity Press, 2011).

Andy is currently working on a PhD in New Testament at Durham University (England) while serving as a college pastor at Mountain Brook Community Church and leading University Christian Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama. He is married with four children.

David: Andy, I am grateful for you taking the time out of your schedule to answer some questions about yourself, and to talk about your very timely book, Faith Without Illusions. First things first… you seem like a busy guy. Where did you find the time to write a book? And why this book?

Andy: Time for writing the book… I still cannot figure out how I squeezed it in. There were early mornings and late nights, of course. And since I work with a church I get a day off in the week. My wife deserves enormous praise for allowing me to use those days off to write.

I did not really feel free to work on the book during work hours, but there is a lot of ebb and flow in the intensity of a college pastor’s work. So over the summer and Christmas breaks I was able to make a lot of progress without feeling too guilty about working while on the clock as a pastor. I wore out the seat and table at the window of Primavera Coffee here in Birmingham!

Why this particular book? I actually wanted to write a on “The Myths of College Spirituality,” of which cynicism would have been one of about seven others. I preached a sermon on that topic years ago in my second year of college ministry when I began noticing students acting out of a number of misguided ideas about spirituality with which I myself had struggled. But the Myths idea did not grab the attention of publishers.

After a few years of peddling my book proposal at the bookstalls of SBL meetings, I gave up.

Then one day I was invited to lecture in a class on college ministry at Beeson Divinity School, taught by Matt Kerlin, the University Minister at Samford University. I mentioned cynicism that day, and he soon asked if I would preach on that topic for Samford’s chapel.

After preaching that message, I realized that so much of the material I wanted to write about could be presented in a book that took cynicism as its major theme. Likewise Books with IVP expressed interest and suggested I contact them later in the year.

A contract, to my delightful shock, eventually followed.

So there are these two sermons in my college ministry experience that eventually gave rise to Faith Without Illusions. I am pleased that preaching had such a significant role in the process.

David: Why do you think so many Christians are cynical today? In your book you say that: “Cynicism is a sickness.” You promote a “hopeful realism” instead. Can you explain? I mean… what is going on in the church that we need a book like this?

Andy: Cynicism is in the air of our culture. The dust is beginning to settle from the modern era, and the landscape comes into view we are becoming painfully aware that human ingenuity, scientific progress, and engineering skill have not lived up to touted expectations.

Postmodern critiques are to be welcomed to the extent that they agree with Scripture on humankind’s incapacity to engineer its own salvation. Those critiques, of course, can certainly be cynical.

And since modernity’s approaches and ways of thinking have been so enthusiastically adopted in the church’s recent history, then that cynicism is creeping into our ranks as well.

On a more practical level, cynicism flourishes where there is bad thinking and bad behavior. And we have plenty of that, sadly, in the church!

Misguided thinking (like exact predictions for the world’s end, for instance) and improper behavior (like gossiping about those people who make such weird predictions, for instance) tend to disillusion us. That disillusionment is the first step toward cynicism.

As you mentioned, rather than cynicism (or idealism), I am calling for “hopeful realism.” I am trying to capture with this phrase the disposition and outlook to which Scripture calls us. We cannot be idealists who seem to deny the grim miseries of an ex-Eden world.

But cynics seem unwilling or unable to acknowledge that a new Eden is around the bend… and even in our midst.

The climbing of Jesus out of His grave is the initiation of the re-created heavens and earth—the new edenic paradise—for which we are all longing. Hopeful realists acknowledge the harsh cruelties of a fallen world but not without singing a tune under their breath about the emergence of new creation in our midst that is to be finalized in the future.

David: In your book you discuss several things that have often produced cynical saints: idealism, religiosity, experientialism, cultural irrelevance, and anti-intellectualism. I wish we could discuss a bit of all of these, but if you don’t mind I would like to talk briefly about one of these causes for cynicism. I know that I personally resonated with this statement on anti-intellectualism within the church.

You say, “the ongoing cycle generated by anti-intellectualism in the church and intellectual elitism in the academy may be among the most serious issues Christians must address in our day.” What do you think is going on there? What can folks on both sides of the aisle do about this problem?

Andy: The tension between anti-intellectualism and intellectual elitism in the church was recently put on vivid display by a blog post written by Donald Miller (which was eventually re-posted at RELEVANTMagazine.com). The comment streams are very long, and in that online interaction one can detect such suspicion on both sides of the “aisle,” as you put it.

(Let me say that I really like Miller as a writer, I just struggled with the comments in that post. At my blog I write about how I disagree and how I agree with him. And RELEVANT Magazine was gracious to allow me to write on Anti-intellectualism a few weeks after they published Miller’s blog post).

So what do we do about this tension? How do we deflate the stereotypes of the Christian anti-intellectual and the intellectually elitist Christian? I think we should realistically prepare to measure the time it will take to make those changes in terms of decades, not years.

We need a generation of young Christians who will begin to seriously integrate the worshipful laboring of their minds with other dimensions of their faith. 

There are good signs that this might happen alongside some frightening signs that it may not. In the first instance, we have a large number of young ministers (like you and me!) interested in pursuing doctoral work.

The reality is that there will not be enough academic posts for these qualified individuals to fill, a situation that will hopefully direct more and more well-trained ministers into the front line of church work.

If these scholar-pastors will be pastoral scholars (rather than uppity intellectual jerks!), then hopefully there will be a gradual embrace within the church of “the life of the mind” (note: if we take church jobs embittered that we did not get the university job, we are going to harm more than help this problem!).

The bad signs that bridging the divide will not happen are documented in some serious studies on what is happening with the younger generations in our churches.

Sociologist Christian Smith and his collaborating team of researchers describe widespread failures on behalf of parents and pastors to train and socialize children and youth into the rich theological traditions of the church (see his Soul Searching: The Spiritual and Religious Lives of American Teenagers and Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults; see also Kenda Creasy Dead’s Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church).

For the time being, something we can do now to help bridge the divide between the academy and church is to begin nurturing our contemporary scholars and to begin encouraging them to use their gifts in local congregations. For those Christian scholars, a heightened, loving sensitivity to the suspicions surrounding their profession needs to be adopted, and we cannot react defensively to those suspicions. Hard work. But necessary.

And since Christian scholars generally live only in university towns, another major objective should be getting their works into the hands of church-folk who live in “Smalltown, USA” and other places without face to face interaction with our authors and teachers. Lot’s of challenges….

David: That’s interesting that you would mention Christian Smith. My next question was going to involve your call for “biblical communities” in this pursuit of healthy churches.

Smith wrote an excellent book, Going to the Root: Nine Proposals for Radical Church Renewal (1992) that describes a view of biblical community. In this book he proposed Acts 2 home fellowships where folks live in the same neighborhood in order to enjoy the sort of community that allows for every member functioning without reliance upon a rigid hierarchy.

What do you think of those in the “organic” and simple churches today who are seeking to embody what you describe, only in a more familial setting where “priesthood of the believer” is truly becoming a reality instead of just a church doctrine?

Do you think it’s possible that the clergy-laity dichotomy has only fueled the fire that blazes between the intellectuals and “lay” folks? And is there any cynicism directed toward those who have chosen to meet this way, on what might be called the “fringes” of Christianity?

Andy: I have never been an active member of an organic-style church, so I cannot speak with much personal clout about them! I do like much of the vision guiding such churches.

In Faith Without Illusions, my concern is not with promoting a “how” as much of a “what”—no matter the style or polity of church (simple, organic, hierarchical, congregational, etc.), I just want to see local expressions of Christ’s body functioning not as “cliques” or “crowds” but as “communities.”

Cliques function well internally, but not externally, crowds are the opposite, but biblical communities have a healthy balance of the inward and outward orientations we see presented to us in places like the book of Acts.

Because I suspect most of my readers to be younger Christians who are… well, a bit cynical toward older models of church polity and style, I come down fairly hard on what I perceive to be “cultural arrogance.” Churches are so culturally irrelevant for so many young adults. But we run the risk of arrogantly assuming we have cornered the market on “community.”

What I present in my chapter on cultural irrelevance is that there are actually older, traditional churches that know community way more than we do, in spite of our laid back style and our noble decision to free people from those stuffy coats and ties!

Community is a recent buzzword, but I know folks in my grandparents generation who were living it out for years before all these wonderful new books with suggestions for new models of doing church came along.

I do think there are a number of cynical folks in these newer churches.  Sure. And maybe some of those churches have purposely departed for the ecclesial fringes. But then again, I think most of them are probably more like missional outposts, striving to reach those who have migrated to those fringes. In that regard, simple/organic churches are a refreshing necessity!

On the clergy-laity divide… what a sticky issue. I have a high regard for positions of authority, but I tend to view those in the positions simply as brothers or sisters. I think respecting the office while demystifying those who hold them would be a helpful practice to initiate and maintain in our churches.

David: How do you propose then that we “demystify” the role of leadership without losing leaders?

Andy, I come down to this concern because I think a lot of folks have recognized a real problem, which has in fact been perpetuated by the power-over forms of leadership, and has contributed to the cynicism folks have in and outside of mainstream Christianity.

How can we have real “biblical communities” with the presumption that the best time for that to happen is in church sanctuaries on Sunday morning (p.116)—shoulder-to-shoulder instead of face-to-face?

Some authors and teachers are saying, “No, this stuff isn’t new… it’s as old as the New Testament.” They would contend that the clergy-laity dichotomy is a major obstacle for every-member-functioning in biblical community.

And so my final question is this: “How can we confront the cynicism that exists between both those in the mainstream and those outside on the fringes of Christianity?”

Andy: Probably the most effective way of lessening the tension in the clergy-laity dichotomy is for clergy to embody the humble servanthood prescribed and modeled by Jesus in the Gospels.

Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus is the best book outside the Gospels on urging this.  Matthew 23:8-12 needs to be read much more voraciously than the latest bestsellers in Christian “Leadership.”

If those of us in ministry leadership positions used our office as a means of giving up ourselves rather than wielding power, then surely this would help deflate some of the cynicism that arises from the personality cults and from the demeaning and harsh words of pastors or elders.

As for your final question on confronting cynicism within and on the fringes of church-life, I think what we do not do is judge the cynics or distance ourselves from them. We tend to treat them as our enemies. We do not like interacting with them because of how they ruffle our feathers.

But judging them and distancing them will only justify their cynicism and shove them further out from the harbor of the church.

So I think we make it a priority to find our cynics, talk openly about what makes them cynical, and then respond with a teachable spirit, willing to listen and learn from their frustrations.

Redeemed cynics have so much to offer the church. They may well be the most insightful people in our midst. So we should welcome them for the sake of their healing and ours!

David: Thank you, Andy. I appreciate your time. I know it is valuable. This is an excellent book… very timely. It’s my desire that folks in the mainstream and the fringes of Christianity will read Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint.

Faith Without Illusions

Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011) by Andrew Byers

Disillusionment is the “dispersal of illusions,” and many Christians are finding themselves passing through disillusionment only to drown in a sea of cynicism.

Andy Byers makes his authorial debut with a very timely book that is bound to challenge and encourage the broken, bitter, and burned-out Christian cynics among us.

“It is hard not to be cynical when you drive past a church and read a message like this on a rusted marquee sign: ‘To Prevent Sinburn, Use Sonscreen.’ Really? Someone thought it was a good idea to go public with that?” (p.107)

It’s the marquees, the bumper stickers, the shallow theology, the sappy “Christian” radio disc jockeys, and the endless clichés of pop-culture Christianity that are enough to send disillusioned believers into a cynic rage.

I mean… who hasn’t wanted to drive their car off a cliff after having to hear I Can Only Imagine for the bazillionth time?

Byers observes that, “many believers have now slid into those dark pits that cynicism is becoming vogue in many Christian circles as a self-identifying trademark of a new spirituality—the edgy spirituality of the jaded.” (p.8)

There is certainly no shortage of bitter believers that claim to be “free” from the chains of religion. You can even join social networks for the caustic cussing Christians who are congregating on the fringes of Christianity and attracting others who feel abused and betrayed.

Byers says, “Cynicism is a sickness.” However, it is possible to overcome this state of disparagement by reckoning disillusionment with the church as a gift from God—an “act of God’s grace.”

Beyers acknowledges the many errors and shortcomings of pop-culture Christianity, but he claims we need to embrace a “hopeful realism” that moves folks out of frustrated cynicism and on to biblical alternatives that reflect resurrection.

“We are in dire need for redeemed cynics to dress their wounds that they may rise up and flourish in the truths revealed to them for the health of the church and for the glory of God.” (p. 12)

Part I of the book addresses those things that make us cynical: idealism, legalism, religiosity, experientialism, anti-intellectualism, and cultural irrelevance. If you’re even remotely sour over your past experiences and the current state of the church, you’re liable to resonate with Byers assessment of the issues. I found myself laughing one minute, and sincerely examining my heart the next.

It’s possible for cynics to know healing in these pages. Byers writes that his intentions for the first part of the book is, “to give voice to the frustrations of cynical readers, providing some degree of cathartic venting while at the same time providing convincing arguments that the standard cynical approaches are counterproductive.” (p.13)

Part II of the book presents the reader with alternatives to cynicism that resemble the biblical patterns of the prophet, sage, poet, and the Christ who shows us how to truly be human. Byers helps his readers to see that Jesus was not a cynic. Therefore, his followers are not justified in embracing cynicism as a lifestyle.

Byers says, “Redeemed cynics have much to offer.” Disciples of Jesus should find healing and recover for a new commission. Instead of being critical of the church at a distance, redeemed cynics will be active and involved in the renewing of the community of Christ.

“If we can manage to find healing and regain our footing a bit after the rug has been ripped out from beneath us, then we may be used by God to free others from faulty ideas about our faith.” (p.11)

Faith Without Illusions contains a message of encouragement and hope for the weary. I pray that the Lord will use Byers’ book to aid in spiritual renewal and church restoration.

Andrew Byers is working on a PhD in New Testament at Durham University (England) while serving as college pastor at Mountain Brook Community Church and leading University Christian Fellowship in Birmingham, Alabama. He has served in campus ministry at Gardner-Webb University and has degrees from Beeson Divinity School and Duke University.

Stay tuned for an interview with Andrew Byers!

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