Culture Friday: The grace of God

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday, the 16th of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Well, it seems as though we’ve heard virtually only one big story all week. Sounded a bit like this…

AUDIO: This is an ABC news special report. 

Thanks for joining us. We are coming on the air with breaking news. Sources telling ABC News that Jeffrey Epstein has died.

Tonight, he is dead by an apparent suicide. … 

Breaking news now and the U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein has taken his own life … 

… found unresponsive in his Manhattan jail cell. 

Investigators and lawyers have more questions than answers. 

He was rushed to the hospital but it was too late. 

Attorney General William Barr said Epstein’s death raises serious questions … 

But it’s also raising some conspiracy theories … 

Russian bots are now pushing this new conspiracy theory online to further divide Americans. 

A political row has broken out in the United States. 

Some, including the city’s mayor have called it convenient.

It didn’t take long to pull that together. These threads were all over the internet. And I have to be honest, the last part is one of the key parts of the story from a cultural standpoint: The prevalence of the conspiracy theory.

BASHAM: Gotta be honest, too. It was the first thing that came to my mind when I heard it. At one level, it’s a bit difficult to believe it was just sleepy prison guards. But if true, something’s happened to us that we first gravitate to the conspiracy.

EICHER: I don’t know whether I started spinning these theories in my own mind when the first alerts started rolling in to my phone that weekend. But, for sure, I did think, here we go. This is ripe for conspiracy theories.

Well, it’s Culture Friday. And Trevin Wax joins us.

Trevin’s a Bible publisher at Lifeway, he’s a popular blogger, and the author of six books. They include This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel.

BASHAM: Trevin, glad to get a chance to talk with you today. Welcome back.

TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Yeah, good to be with you both. Thanks for having me on.

EICHER: So, Trevin, do you think these conspiracies are justified?

WAX: Well, you know, I’m generally one who will roll my eyes at conspiracy theories. I have a long-running teasing relationship with a really good friend of mine who’s convinced that the moon landing was staged. And so I tend to be the one who is going to be the last one to jump on the bandwagon of conspiracies. This one, though, I think any rational person would look at this and say there are enough people that wanted this guy dead to ask questions about what actually happened that night, how he was able to kill himself, why certain protocol wasn’t followed.

I don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory to ask those difficult and challenging questions. The challenge we face today, though, is, I mean, our president has peddled quite a few conspiracy theories in the past few years. I mean, beginning with the birther conversation but then on into Ted Cruz’s father being present at the JFK assassination. And what that does is when you actually have a situation that demands some answers, legitimate questions begin to look crazy when they may actually be legitimate.

BASHAM: Well, and it did seem like everybody wanted to jump in and use this to hammer their own cause.

WAX: Yeah, you know, we’ve got to be careful because I think a lot of times in our culture right now, we’re in this moment where we will latch onto conspiracy theories that further the narrative of the political side we already belong to. And when we do that, the overall trust in society gets diminished over time. And we can see the rise of a real cynicism of society where there’s no basic trust of institutions, of authorities, of people in leadership and that is corrosive to the American culture and the American experiment.

BASHAM: Well, yeah, I was just about the jump in and say—to sort of steal my own thunder, I did a review of this new Netflix series, it’s a documentary series, and you’ll hear that later in the show. It’s called The Family and it’s about a non-denominational, quiet, somewhat anonymous Bible study group. They minister to leaders. And in a lot of ways, we have reported that there was some significant wrongdoing within that group. And so it was an interesting documentary for that reason. But they took it to ridiculous places. I mean, the image of the show is it’s a shadow government. It’s Christians trying to establish a theocracy. And it was a little scary for me to go, just normal Christian behavior like voicing your advocacy for traditional marriage or the sanctity of life, that was shown as somehow conspiratorial.

WAX: Yeah, I remember skimming the book and just chuckling my way through it, thinking ‘Oh, this is really rich.’ Because if Christians are trying to set up a theocracy, we’re doing a very terrible job. If conservatives are winning, you sure don’t know it, right? But the painting of any religious group with a brush that is going to make there be just high levels of suspicion—it isn’t good when we do that to people of other faiths, people like Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. I mean, we could even have conversations about how a lot of Muslims are all painted with the same brush based on what we see in other countries and other parts of the world and whatnot. And so we’ve got to say we have to be careful doing that and the left generally says never do that, right? Except when it comes to conservative Christians and then it’s like, well, this is really a dangerous conspiracy. And I think that’s not a good sign. It doesn’t bode well for how just normal evangelicals and Christian beliefs will be viewed in the coming years.

MUSIC: [Oh, Praise The Name] 

EICHER: The Christian songwriter Marty Sampson from Hillsong United has announced he’s losing his faith.

In an online posting, he said: “This is a soapbox moment so here I go . . . How many preachers fall? Many. No one talks about it. How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all ‘coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it. Christians can be the most judgmental people on the planet — they can also be some of the most beautiful and loving people. But it’s not for me.”

National Review writer David French said this: “In my travels around the country, one thing has become crystal clear to me. Christians are not prepared for the social consequences of the profound cultural shifts — especially in more secular parts of the nation. They’re afraid to say what they believe, not because they face the kind of persecution that Christians face overseas but because they’re simply not prepared for any meaningful adverse consequences in their careers or with their peers.”

Interesting thoughts. What do you think? Are we carrying this too far?

WAX: You know, I think every one of these stories—you hear two or three and you think this is a massive trend of secularization. I think we’ve got to be careful in drawing big picture narratives from individual stories like these because they are individual. And there’s generally a hundred things going on, maybe even more in the heart of a person that is in a situation like this. And we may only be aware of one or two things that they actually mention on the surface.

I found the Marty Sampson statement to be a little distressing just because I think, what circles does he run in? Because it sounds like we’re talking about a lot of the things we never talk about all the time—fall of pastors to why hasn’t God answered my prayers to why does the Bible, how do you answer the apparent contradictions in the Bible and things like that. I mean, that’s really bread and butter of a lot of apologetics and worldview and student ministries that are out there.

So, in hearing that and listening to that—I love David French. David says some great things. I’m not sure in this particular case, in this particular response to this one singer that it is about the adverse effects or consequences that has led someone to fall away. We have this tendency, when we hear of a high profile person leaving the faith, to take whatever view we already have of a movement or of a habit or of an event or culture, subculture within Christianity, we have this tendency to then take whatever we already think and say, “Look, see? This is what is the case.”

You saw this happen with the prominent pastor Josh Harris, to which I want to just take a step back and remind people that human beings are very complicated and complex. Jesus told us that people would fall away. Paul grieved people that had partnered with him that fell away. And so at one level we shouldn’t be completely surprised.

But at another level, I just would hesitate and would want people to step back before just taking someone’s individual story of falling away from the faith and making that another round of ammo to go out and make the point you want to make about whatever it is you already believe to be problematic in evangelical circles. That’s dehumanizing and it sends a signal to people in our congregations who may be really struggling or doubting or going through terrible tragedy or maybe facing depression. We send a terrible signal there if we’re not going to treat people like individuals and with the dignity of human beings.

BASHAM: Well, just to jump in, it does seem a little like, too, we get this, in this new social media era, we think whatever that public persona that they put out there, that that gives us enough to totally understand their story.

WAX: Absolutely. And I think that’s a bad assumption. And we’re not going to shame people back into the Christian faith. We need to recognize there are all sorts of things going on in people’s hearts. And, you know, the story’s not over yet either. I saw a pastor online who said, you know, you should always keep praying for your kids. Because if they’re doing really well, you need to pray for them because they’re not out of the spiritual woods, so to speak. And if they’re doing really badly, well, you need to pray for them because the story’s not over. Right? No matter where our kids are or where our friends are, we need to be praying for each other because there but for the grace of God go any of us. I think that ought to be the lesson, not this sort of let’s use this example of this high profile person to go and rail against whatever we already thought was problematic about something in evangelical culture.

EICHER: Trevin Wax is a Bible publisher at Lifeway. He’s a popular blogger at The Gospel Coalition. He’s author of six books and about to be seven. They include This is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel. Trevin, great to talk with you. Thanks so much.

WAX: Great to be with you guys.

(Photo/YouTube, Hillsong Worship) Marty Sampson, a songwriter for Hillsong.

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