Thursday, January 24, 2013

The PCA, Toxic Cultures and Nickelback

(Caveat Lector - Unlike most things I write here, this is very site-specific to the church/denominational microcosm I live in. I won't make a habit of this.)

Not long ago I found myself in a discussion with another PCA pastor about the future of our denomination.1 I had met him a few hours before at a denominational gathering and we were eating dinner with a group of mutual friends. In a few more hours we would be traveling in different directions. What our conversation lacked in familiarity it made up for in that freedom people have to speak directly without undue concern for bruising a friendship or the need to later over-qualify what was said. During earlier meal-chatter he sized me up (correctly I think) as someone with similar convictions and sympathies about the work of ministry.

1 Let me register my long-standing ambivalence (not objection) to the term “Teaching Elder”. I get why we use it in the PCA and understand the theological and contextual motives behind it, but “Pastor or “Minister” just seem clearer and more biblically precise terms.

The conversation soon morphed into the now compulsory talk of growing atrophy in the PCA. The dominant adjective was “toxic”. His word not mine. It’s a punchy, memorable word so I don’t mind using it here. I’m also using it because my dinner-mate did most of the talking at this point and repeated the word often. Toxic became the one-word aphorism that connected all his fears about the current state of the PCA. This toxicity he claimed is a clear and present danger. Specifically a threat to him and the congregation he served. It was ominous and apparently inexorable. So much so it demanded “difficult decisions” be made soon. This was obvious code language for “My church and I may leave the PCA”.

He noted my silence and asked me what I thought.

“I think you’re paranoid.”

When I said that, I’m reasonably confident (though not certain) I was avoiding a personal attack. According to the late Daniel G. Freedman, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, two common traits of paranoid thinking are “reduced data gathering” and “ambiguous social information”.  As I’ve done more than my share of paranoid thinking over the years I know this has the ring of truth.

I had no reason to doubt this man’s sincerity and what seemed an unshakeable belief in his assessment of the PCA. Yet it was striking it was made up entirely of broad generalities, sweeping statements and generous use of argumentum in terrorem. In other words, very little data and a sea of ambiguity.2

2 This line of argument is common to every ideological wing of every group everywhere including those in the PCA. But I was talking to this man so in this case it belonged to him.
I pressed him to be specific about the threats in the PCA. “Tell me exactly who or what these threats are and how they would prevent you from fulfilling your ministry now or in the future.”

To be fair, he was quick with an answer. First he listed two disciplinary cases that he saw as evidence of an overly litigious spirit. One involved a presbytery in another part of the country. It was early in the judicial process and the core issue involved had already been adjudicated at the General Assembly level in such a specific way as to clearly protect broad views on the matter. His problem was that the issue was still being contended by sections of our denomination. To be polite I conceded a draw on that one. The other case he cited was widely rumored but didn’t actually exist (and as far as I know still doesn’t). Good. So now I was ahead.

He had one more example. Blogs. He got very specific, rattling off several blogs by name. I could be splitting hairs but one was more of an aggregate news site (that admittedly did have a clear ideological bent.) I was familiar with some but not all of them. Of particular concern to him were those that are sometimes called “discernment blogs” run by men who parlay their internet access and Wordpress account into a soapbox to become self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy. Saying he was concerned is a vast understatement. It was closer to fury. And having read some of these blogs I could begin to understand it.

I like blogs. You’re reading this in one now. Bloggers (including PCA bloggers) run the gamut from the clear and informed to the, well, less so. Discernment bloggers are generally run by men who need a separate category. The Germans have a great word for it, Backpfeifengesicht. Loosely translated, “a face that begs for a punch”. The sum of this is their consistent pattern of seeing objections to their self-aggrandizement, poor manners, personal attacks and loose handling of facts as proof itself of their righteous cause. Many attract a gaggle of sycophants who shout down the comment section-challengers and offer fawning homage to their champions.

All that said, seeing the Backpfeifengesicht Blogs as face value evidence of a toxic culture in the PCA is all stuff and nonsense. You can’t help but see and note their boorishness, but the real problem is how it’s processed.

British author and journalist Oliver Burkeman recently dedicated a column in The Guardian to the issue of dealing with, I’ll paraphrase him, “difficult people”. He used a more vulgar term. Burkeman leaned heavily on the (I’m not kidding) scholarly work of of UC-Irvine professor Aaron James on the phenomena and proper response to these, uh, people who “enrage us out of all proportion to the damage they do.”

The dilemma?
It's hard to resist the temptation to fight on their terms: when you explode in rage at (him) you're really demanding that he recognize your moral status. But that defines you as a supplicant, and an inferior, seeking his approval, thus reinforcing (their) worldview – so don't be shocked if it doesn't work.
It never works and the only real traction these blogs get is the anger directed at them. And in this case it is a dead certainty that this anger is way out of proportion to the damage they do and the actual influenced they have.

The Digital/Internet Age has transformed communication in countless ways. One is the democratization of access. On balance this is a good thing but it comes at a cost. With very little money, talent or common sense just about anyone can publish a book, record an album, fund any fool “project” (I’m looking at you Kickstarter), declare themselves a film critic, become an ordained minister or sell a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary for $28,000. Or start a “discernment blog” and say whatever you want with de facto impunity and zero accountability. That this actually happens can be regretted. But it simply cannot be a reliable barometer of substantive social or cultural trends. Put simply, the exception that proves the rule can now gather as much attention as the rule.

In 2010 a mom in Anaheim Hills, California paid a local production company $4000 to record her 13-year-old daughter sing a stock, pre-written pop song called “Friday” and film an accompanying video. Her little girl, Rebecca Black, couldn’t stay on pitch to save her life so most of her vocals were corrected with a digital process called Auto-Tune. The finished song and video reached a breathtaking calibre of awful. When the video was released on YouTube the negative response was apoplectic. A serious music critic suggested it could be “the worst song ever”. It was lampooned and parodied without mercy. The result? Almost 50 million views on YouTube which alone generated tens of thousands of dollars. When the song hit the Billboard best selling charts in seven different countries it earned even more money. It became a pop-culture phenomena.

To review:

1. The anger and scorn given this song was the oxygen that kept it alive.

2. Rebecca Black was and remains a young woman without any discernible musical talent.

The anger and attention given to the Backpfeifengesicht Blogs also suggests a weird symbiotic relationship. These bloggers flourish via this attention and hostility they generate despite the dispassionate (and to me pretty obvious) view many of these men build illusions of significance for themselves. But I realized that night at the dinner table something else. There is a growing number of people in the circles I travel in that have a strange metaphysical dependence on these bloggers.3 Anger at them helps sustain a reasoning bias that provides an easily accessible explanation for present frustrations (of all sorts) and a justification to avoid the hard slog of empathy, patience, humility, and living in the mess that in ministry and this life Jesus promised they would live in. I know that sounds harsh. I could be wrong. But I don’t think so.

3 Whether I like it or not, fair or not, accurate or not (and whenever anyone takes notice) I’m generally consigned to the “progressive” stratum of the PCA. I think it may have been those four years doing ministry in the same area code as Tim Keller.
It’s practically an obligation for younger pastors in the PCA to question the motives of the founders of our denomination. For many it’s self-attesting in the same way Nickelback’s music is considered unlistenable.  I’m certainly not young but I share the uneasiness about much of what is constituent in our short institutional history.4 There is, I believe, a maze of issues tied up to our roots that demand to be unsorted and repented from. But with all that here is a cold, hard truth. Their motivations for separating from their previous denomination were clearer, more compelling and biblically-informed than anything I’ve heard from those complaining of toxic influences, litigious presbyters and evil bloggers. Not even close.

4 And I do think Nickelback is awful.

I know men who have left our denomination as a matter of conscience over specific and material theological issues (both left and right). I was grieved to lose them but I understood and respected it. But I’m growing a little weary of men who are selling the church culture/blogger bogeyman card as a legitimate excuse to leave.

I’m not buying.


  1. Excellent summary. Usually when people leave a church there's the given reason and the real reason. "Backpfeifengesicht" attitudes may contribute a lot. For sake of full disclosure: I don't listen to much Nickelback, but loved their cover of "Sharp Dressed Man" at the ZZ Top tribute. Oops, I will now be vilified by anti-Nickelbackians.

    1. I was a teenager in the '70's so Frampton Comes Alive is one of my favorite albums of all time. We all have our guilty pleasures.

  2. Tom,
    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Count me now among your sycophants.

  3. Well said, Tom. Thanks for putting it so clearly!