“This ain’t right, bro. Seriously. Christians are being marketed to. This is all fake. Why can’t people see this?”
That was my take on what was probably the first “discernment” piece I ever wrote. It was about seven years ago on my first website, The Daily Soap Box. I could not understand, for the life of me, why people – Christians, good ones – were letting their tween daughters tote around Hannah Montana lunch boxes and backpacks. I was repeatedly told this was a Christian family. Miley sang in church. Billy Ray was a Southern Baptist. She had a virginity ring and talked about Jesus. The undiscerning parents looked at me with as much disbelief as I looked at them.
Fast-forward seven years and Miley Cyrus is a gender-fluid, sexually promiscuous twerker on a stripper pole with her tongue stuck out. Saying “I told you so” doesn’t quite cut it. And those I warned chock it up to a lucky guess. Discernment folks, it turns out, have a lot of lucky guesses.
In the end, the Hannah-Montana-turned-icky example is small potatoes. I looked around as a 26 year old pastor and from what I knew via my extensive reading of People Magazine in doctors’ offices, Britney Spears talked about Jesus. Jessica Simpson was pastor’s daughter who wore a virginity ring. The Jonas Brothers had virginity rings. All the Disney stars were promoted as wholesome, Christian, Jesus-loving, flag-waving, apple pie-eating role models. A few years go by and KFed is Britney’s baby-dady, Jessica Simpson turned into Daisy Duke and her dad turned gay, and the middle Jonas brother is a gay-ish exotic dancer. Point being, who couldn’t see all of this coming?
A bunch of middle-aged suburban Christian parents buying their kids Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato (they advertised their virginity rings, too) posters for their rooms – that’s who.
Discernment folks aren’t psychic, it turns out. We’re just students of near-history and aware of our surroundings. It’s like, seriously people…
(A) Christians are a marketing demographic, and this is a repeated marketing strategy that turns your kids into consumers while turning parents into dolts.
(B) There’s something unsettling about a 15 year-old girls shaking her badonkadonk on stage and writhing sexily for their adorning fans while talking about virginity that rings out as in sincere – or better yet, sinister. Don’t think about a giant pink elephant – wink wink.
Why didn’t people get that? It took me a while to figure out that’s normal.
Seven years after dabbling in discernment, Pulpit & Pen has become the Rolex of Watchblogs (a term applied to us by a critic, which we rather enjoy and are glad it hasn’t been copyrighted). It would be really hard to think of a discernment website with more regular readership, although we stand in the shadow of two giants and the ministries of Chris Rosebrough and the late Ken Silva. It’s been surreal to see Pulpit & Pen break the top news story in the world (according to the editor of the Washington Post) for two days this past January and be cited in everything from the London Telegraph to the UK Daily Mail to New York Times. It’s been surreal to see publications like Christianity Today regularly take passive aggressive jabs at us. It’s been surreal to see some of the most prominent names in evangelicalism call us out by name and warn their followers as to our alleged toxicity. It’s also been surreal to see other publications hang on our every word as we watch the pingbacks to their publications, citing our stories and reporting our news.
The consequences of our work have ranged from mild to severe. Yes, there’s the regular Twitter stalkers, who are easily blocked (and with no hard feelings). Yes, there are some anonymous parody accounts that are mean and make fun of whatever they can make fun of, from my pleasant plumpness to Seth Dunn’s inability to pronounce names correctly (I just remind myself that I’ve been treated worse by better people). But unfortunately, we’ve lost friends in the process. We’ve lost friends whose elders made them distance themselves from us when public pressure was applied by denominational or ecclesiastic authorities. We’ve lost friends who no doubt mean well, who think we’ve “attacked” the wrong team one too many times. Some of the former contributors of Pulpit & Pen have lost jobs at both secular and religious employment for their affiliation. We’ve had some of our heroes go sideways with us a time or two. Some of us have even had consequences meet us in our own ministries, as outside pressure creeps into local churches (and yes, virtually all of us have had denominational employees call our church members or our elders in protest).
And frankly, we’ve made mistakes. We’ve made enemies out of folks we like, like a certain former radio host turned current radio host, during the Josh Duggar controversy. Pulpit & Pen has not always said everything the right way in the right timing for the right purpose. No doubt, there’s more than one unwise conversation I would take back if I could. There are times when our zeal has overpowered our wisdom. There are times our lack of omniscience shines forth. If we claimed prophecy, we should be stoned by now under the Jewish ceremonial code (it’s a good thing we’re cessationists). And, virtually each and every time, we bear the brunt of the consequences for those things and earn a degree of the vitriol cast in our direction by people on all sides.
And yet, a few things I’ve learned from discernment ministry:
- You cannot underestimate the inability of most Christians to perceive the dangers around them. Again, being discerning is not about being psychic. Most discernment is just about paying attention to your spiritual surroundings. Most people just will not stop and notice. Go to the shopping mall and watch people. Most people are walking around completely oblivious to the dangers around them, walking from Victoria’s Secret to Spencer’s Gifts without looking up from their Angry Birds app. And if you look long enough, you’ll see somebody else watching people – that’s the discerning guy. As paranoid as it may be, I’ve always been the type of guy to sit with my back to the wall at a restaurant or watching the hands of the guy in front of me at the convenience store. I’m cognizant of the vehicles that go down my street and have a mental note of the makes and models of all the vehicles on my block in case something is out of place. Most people are simply not that way, and that goes for Christians in the spiritual realm.
- You cannot underestimate the inability of most Christians to be students of history – ancient or near history. Ronald Reagan reportedly said, “For liberals, history began when they were born.” For many Christians, that’s probably too optimistic; for many, history began this morning. Another apocalypse date? Really? Again?! And yet, Christians are falling for this. Another omen interpretation? For crying out loud. Rick Warren again insinuates an altogether different cult from last time are his spiritual brothers and you think he just is inarticulate…again. For realsies? Osteen again plays the “I don’t know” card when he’s asked about the exclusivity of Christ? The fact is, most Christians aren’t keeping track of this stuff. They don’t read the news. The first time a sheep “accidentally” bumps off a fellow sheep maybe they’re just clumsy. The second time, it’s bizarre. But the third time that sheep rolls in with mutton between his teeth and lamb’s blood on his chin and you might just have a wolf.
- The “discernment community” seems to speak in almost absolute unity concerning the more prominent wolves in the flock of modern evangelicalism. There are hyper-Arminians in the Pulpit Bunker. They’re there because they agree with us on discernment issues even though they hate our soteriology. There’s a Lutheran discernment community, Presbyterian discernment community, Baptist discernment community and one in almost every segment of evangelicalism except in charismatic circles (haven’t found one there yet). We may strangle each other over infant “baptism” (see those scare quotes I did just for giggles?) but we agree on Warren, Osteen, Meyer, Moore, the other Moore, the Mystichicks, et al. What could possibly be the reason for that unity, despite the obvious division? It’s #4.
- Discernment is a spiritual gift, and should be fostered and promoted as essential to the local and universal church. The reason for unity in the discernment community is that discernment really is a Spirit-led (Hebrews 5:14). The same Spirit that guides the Presbyterians guides the Lutherans and that’s the same spirit that leads the Baptists. We may have different hermeneutics or interpretative presuppositions that allows us to land in different Confessions, but our discernment spidey senses all tingle when a wolf draws near.
- No matter how many times you’re right, you’re a H8r. No one (well, hardly no one) will come to you and say, “Okay. You were right. Sorry for calling you a H8r.” No, it’s “Lucky guess, but you’re still a H8r.” If you’re in this business for the public accolades, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
In the present, we trudge along doing the work we do. But why?
Do you think it’s easy to do discernment? Do you think it’s fun? Sure – there are sociopathic weirdos that do discernment, and they’re mostly anonymous and complain about everything. And yeah, there may be the stereotypical basement-living-opinion-giver whose mother does their laundry and who subsist on Cheetos (the puff kind, like some kind of liberal) and chocolate milk, who use their unemployment checks for acne cream and video games. I can’t speak for those folks, because they rarely come out of the basement to talk.
Most of us are pastors. Most of us have seen the sheep slaughtered and wandered in to see gullible men and weak women led astray to the butcher. We can tell you story after story of how the outside influence of false teachers have hurt people we love and have been commissioned to serve and protect. So yeah, we’re bitter. We’re a tad cautious, having to give an account f0r the souls entrusted us (Hebrews 13:17). And, yes – our shepherd’s staff has a little wolf blood on it. It’s a messy business.
What you may not know is that are loving husbands, fathers, nurturing and sympathetic pastors. That may shock you, given our rough exteriors, but the truth is we treat wolves much, much differently than we treat sheep, obviously. All you may see is discernment, when for most us, that’s just a very small part of what we do. We also bury the dead, marry the betrothed, visit the sick, comfort the hurting, and do the work of both pastors and evangelists.
We’re really not an enigma, but there’s more to us than the caricature people paint. We are multifaceted individuals, complex, and have actual lives and typically take just enough time to make people hate us, and occasionally spare a few from real spiritual problems. Get to know us. You may learn to like us.
But maybe not.
[Contributed by JD Hall]