By Alastair Roberts
An Age of Marketing
We live in an age of marketing—of snappy phrases, bold headlines, and simplified, catchy ideas. To survive in this world, the gurus tell us, you have to become a brand, and ideally rebrand yourself every few years. Over the past few decades, the temptation to turn Christianity into a brand has proved irresistible not merely among the Joel Osteen’s of the world, but even in many of the strongest and most intellectual holdouts of Reformed and evangelical Christianity. If ideas are to survive at all in a branded world, they must do so as ideologies, as -isms, a neat, pre-packaged, name-it-and-claim-it (or name-it-and-damn-it) system of ideas.
The last few decades have witnessed just such a turn to ideology among many conservative Reformed and evangelical Christians. Such Christians have often reduced their intellectual adversaries to neatly-delineated “-isms” (Darwinism, Marxism, modernism, relativism, etc.) in order to more easily critique them. Such worldview analysis, unwittingly adopting the legacy of figures such as Immanuel Kant, tends to emphasize a mentally constructed world over the concrete world. The competing mentally constructed worlds of different ideologies are almost invariably mutually exclusive and antagonistic, each built upon opposing fundamental presuppositions or commitments. The task of the worldview thinker is to diagnose the ideological error at the root of opposing worldviews, while upholding a consistently Christian worldview, an ideological edifice developed on the sure foundations of Christian truth.
As dangerous as this is—and we have addressed this danger frequently here at Davenant—an even greater danger lurks: turning our faith itself into an -ism, the Word of God into a brand. As an -ism, it has often been characterized as a “Christian world and life view.” It offers a grand internally coherent and self-contained edifice of Christian ideas, constructed largely in an airless realm of abstract thought. To distinguish this approach from authentic, faithful, Christianity, I have found it helpful to characterize the former using the term “biblical™.”
Trademarks can offer us assurance about the quality and consistency of products, relieving any anxiety we might have. If you trust the trademark or the brand, you can trust the product, freeing the consumer from the need closely to investigate each product for themselves. Trademarks also have a social significance, enabling people to identify themselves, their values, and the tribes to which they belong. And, obviously, trademarks help companies to sell things more effectively.
The term ‘biblical’ has come to function as a sort of trademark, performing many of a trademark’s purposes. Biblical™ offers people the quality assurance of the trusted Christian brand, relieving people of the uncertainty and anxiety of having to determine the quality of things for themselves. We have biblical™ worldviews, biblical™ parenting, biblical™ business, biblical™ politics, biblical™ leadership, biblical™ counselling, and numerous other biblical™ institutions, techniques, ideas, and products. Like many trademarks, there is a labelling creep, as all the weight of the trademark is placed behind many products that are quite unworthy of it. Adherence to the trademark and its associated brand demonstrates that a person values radically authentic, 100% natural and organic biblical™ Christianity. It also serves as a social identifier, a sign of belonging to the tribe of Bible-believing™, gospel-centred™ Christians.
Given the consumerist form of contemporary Western society, it is not entirely surprising that the term ‘biblical’ has come to function in such a manner. However, the shift has been accelerated by the ideologization of Christian belief I have described. In both cases, we see a very complex array of judgments being simplified in the direction of a single value choice. Ideologies tend to collapse the task of deliberation into that of reflection, the determination of the right into our knowledge of the good. Provided that we are committed to the correct fundamental value—the Bible!—we need not trouble ourselves overmuch with the task of working out what commitment to that looks like in messy realm of practice. Biblical™ worldview assures us that correct practice follows fairly directly from value and, indeed, a great deal of biblical™ teaching declares what such practice ought to be to those who hold the value.
The Loss of Wisdom
This all has the effect of blinding people to the task of wisdom, which is particularly concerned with the labour of perceiving and pursuing the good as it relates to the complex concrete world. Being biblical™ is less a lifelong struggle in the attainment of Christian wisdom and more a pre-packaged system of thought that supposedly automatically renders ‘wise’ the simple. This arrests people’s openness to the world beyond biblical™ ideology and fires them up with an unwarranted confidence that they have attained to true understanding where others fall short. Rather requiring a lifetime of disciplined study, the philosophical and practical import of the Scriptures are deemed relatively immediately apparent and indubitably clear to all with the pre-packaged system.
If everything fundamentally derives from our underlying commitments, then unbiblical presuppositions can disqualify or fatally compromise entire systems of thought. Such a conviction, unsurprisingly, can produce distrust and dismissal of thinkers and authorities that hold supposedly ‘unbiblical’ systems of thought. The reduction of wisdom to shallow value judgments encourages an antithetical posture towards people who hold different religious values, relatively untempered by the recognition that we are all engaged in and wrestling with the same concrete reality: if you hold different religious values, your entire system of thought is radically suspect.
One consequence of this is biblical™ thinking’s tendency proactively to seal itself off from ‘unbelieving’ thought, seeking to establish contexts which are purely biblical™ in their commitments and values. This has not only epistemological but also sociological results. People who adopt such an approach cut themselves off from non-Christian (and many supposedly compromised Christian) forms of wisdom and from correction. They also tend to form echo chambers: as the biblical™ approach depends so much upon ideological purity, it is not easily able to accommodate difference and diversity of perspectives.
This often produces mistrustful communities, who are trained, whether intentionally or not, to distrust those without the sterile realm of the biblical™ quarantine chamber of faithful thought and practice, while often being remarkably credulous of everything within it. In many contexts, I believe that we are seeing some of the fallout of this. For instance, consider what happens to a person who develops extreme confidence in his own knowledge, excessive trust of insiders, deep distrust of outsiders, and a lack of openness to learn new things from sources outside his belief system and ideological community. Such a combination of traits produces a person, or a community, which will almost certainly be unable to deal well with issues such of abuse. Why look to the authorities to deal with sex abuse in your congregation? Don’t you trust your biblical™ worldview?! On the other hand, all sort of diet and health fads and conspiracy theories can spread around biblical™ communities like wildfire.
The Pastor as Brand Guru
One effect of biblical™ ideology has been to elevate pastors and theologians as universal experts. If all truth is biblical™, then the Bible experts are the universal experts. We should look to them for our psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, etc., etc. The result can be pastors who claim authority on a lot of issues about which they are naively ignorant, presenting these as matters of direct biblical™ authority in ways that end up undermining and even discrediting the authority of Scripture. Most of these areas require very extensive study outside of Scripture to gain wisdom and, while Scripture equips the wise person to test things, it really is not a one-stop-shop for all that we need to know about these areas. Scripture provides us with principles that must guide our economics, for instance, but it really does not teach us whether minimum wage laws are good or not. That is largely a matter of contextual wisdom and the answers are neither simple nor straightforward. Merely having the humility that arises from recognizing this is an important place to start.
The False Promises of Brand Loyalty
Belief in a grand coherentist system makes it difficult to admit the idea of degrees of wisdom or more localized wisdom; when everything flows from the fundamental presuppositions, it is easy to regard everything as black and white. Either the system is pure, or it is deeply polluted and compromised. Yet, not least on account of its overextension, biblical™ results in a brand of Christianity that is incredibly brittle. It attaches the weight of the certainty, quality, and reliability of the Bible to a vast range of products, ideas, practices, and institutions that often let people down. It relates commitment to Scripture to commitment to these things. And when they fail, a great many people turn their backs, not just on biblical™ Christianity, but on Christ himself. If one crack appears, the whole edifice is in danger of crumbling.
People can also become disillusioned with biblical™ Christianity when they recognize that there is a great deal of wisdom to be found outside of biblical™ circles and a great deal of folly and simple-mindedness to be found within them. They may also begin to recognize that, in the task of pursuing wisdom, despite its essential importance in rightly orienting us to the greater end of the endeavour, Scripture is far from the whole picture. Without close attention and engagement with reality itself and openness to learn from others committed to this task we will suffer the consequences of foolishness. Our commitment to the Bible as a value does not guarantee our success as educators of our children, for instance, an endeavour in which non-Christians may have much to teach us.
Some of the weaknesses of biblical™ thinking can emerge when we consider issues such as the effects of technology upon our values. Biblical™ worldview thinking tends to adopt an intellectualist epistemology, to privilege of ideas over concrete reality, to construct a self-contained system, to avoid the labour of wisdom, to seek pre-packaged quick fixes to absolve us of the difficulty of thought, and to radically emphasize ideological purity. But these assumptions can all be unsettled when we start to consider the ways in which things such as mass production, book formats, the car, the smartphone, the Internet, or city design dramatically shape our thinking, way of life, and our values. Fall down the rabbit hole of such intellectual inquiry and one might discover that we were never pure biblical™ thinkers, but have always needed to wrestle with the complex task of wisdom and faithfulness to God’s word in the confusing hurly-burly of the actual concrete world.
Read the Ingredients
An abundance of non-Christian influences—ideological, cultural, and material—have been ground into the ‘pure’ sausage of biblical™ worldview. If we simply trust the trademark on the label, we might never closely investigate the ingredients. The alternative is not to eliminate such influences—many of which we have a great deal to gain from—but to be more forthright about what we are taking from them and why, while testing all against Scripture.
Many people have been horribly scarred by biblical™ culture. Countless young people, hurt by the failed promises of the biblical™ ideology, with its attendant practices and unhealthy communities, of their upbringing, have abandoned Christian faith for non-Christian worldviews. These have often merely damaged them in other ways, offering alternative ideologies, rather than genuine engagement with reality. We need to abandon the biblical™ trademark and to recover the challenge of discerning and applying Scripture to our lives and worlds. We need to grow in a scripturally oriented wisdom in the pursuit of the great human project, which we have in common with all who are wrestling with the concrete reality in which God addresses us.
Alastair Roberts is a Teaching Fellow of the Theopolis Institute and the Davenant Institute, a leading evangelical blogger and writer, and one of the hosts of the Mere Fidelity podcast. He is the author of several books published and forthcoming, including Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture and Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes.