“I just can’t get behind it,” said my acquaintance. “Contemporary Christian music, I mean.”
She wasn’t talking to me. She was talking to another person we both knew, and I just so happened to be in the room at the time. She is a committed Christian who is devoted to her church and to God; so is the coworker to whom she was speaking. But she had seized the moment to air some opinions.
“It’s just so simple,” she continued. “Trite, repetitious. It’s like pablum, you know? Shouldn’t believers be better than that? I mean, aren’t we as believers past baby food?”
Her comments weren’t addressed to me, and yet I found myself thinking about them for the rest of the day, the hidden but sneering superiority beneath words like simple and trite and pablum. I was surprised to find myself convicted by them. Because even though I don’t share her opinions about Christian music—the more bands and genres about Jesus, the merrier, as far as I’m concerned—I have on occasion shared her attitude about other subjects related to faith.
We’re living in the age of the self-righteous, dismissive Christian cynic. I’m not immune. And neither are you.
I am about to do something I encourage my students never to do, and cite the dictionary: Merriam-Webster defines a cynic as “a faultfinding captious critic.” I say this because I want to divorce cynic from its more literary and Greek connotations and get at the term as most of us understand it: a cynic is a person who has deeply negative, even pessimistic, views about people and the things that they do.
And Christians can be some of the worst cynics of the bunch. In fact, a Christian cynic might:
– roll their eyes at believers who actually claim to enjoy the trite pablum of contemporary Christian music
– side-eye the overly-sentimental Christmas play (it’s emotional manipulation) and the congregants who are obviously reduced to tears by it (they’re so gullible)
– sniff at people who freely claim to prefer Max Lucado over Henri Nouwen, wishing that the church was better at developing more refined and theologically-complex taste in its members and thinking that the inability to enjoy Nouwen is evidence of a deficiency
– click their tongues at believers who don’t read as much or engage in theological studies, believing that if they had a meaningful interest in their spiritual walk then they would, and that they are underdeveloped and stunted and speaking only from childish tastes
You get the picture. And you might be thinking that Christian cynicism looks and sounds a lot like elitism and condescension. Indeed, it has elements of those things. But Christian cynicism differs from elitism – I’m better than you and know better than you – because it also attributes negative motivations to perceived undesirable behaviors. In fact, the formula for Christian cynicism might be summed up as follows:
Believers [do things I deem to be foolish/silly/valueless] because they are [simple/stupid/naïve/dumb/easily-manipulated/foolish/stunted].
Christian cynicism does two things. It places the cynic in a position of superiority where s/he can comment on and critique others’ tastes, actions, and behaviors while setting themselves apart from and above them, and it imputes a negative motivation or fault to others’ tastes, actions, and behaviors. (And don’t let it slip beyond your notice how much Christian cynicism parrots the sound of the secular world, either – we sound a lot like the world when we do it.)
That’s not to say that we’re never allowed to find fault with the church or with others in the faith, or that everything anyone does should be immune from criticism and never questioned. But Christian cynicism is distinct because it offers criticism where there is really often no need, it imagines motivation and attitude that does not exist, and it defines the cynic’s taste, attitude, and ideas as superior and beyond reproach all in one nightmare package.
It’s also blatantly wrongheaded.
I have a terminal degree. I am a scholar, a reader, and a thinker who is very theologically-minded. And I listen to the “trite pablum” of contemporary Christian music because a) sometimes I want a soul-cheering bop, b) sometimes all I want is the repetition of “God is good” over and over because that is what my heart knows and feels, and c) I understand that “simple” does not always mean bad, or wrong, or flawed. Indeed, listening to my friend that day, I wondered where Jesus and His tastes might fall on her spectrum of Christian complexity!
I know believers who very well understand that some of what Henri Nouwen has written might be an order of magnitude more intellectual or theologically complex than what Max Lucado writes—but they prefer Lucado, and they’re fine with that, because they want something that meets them where they are, or they want something comforting, or they just prefer Lucado’s writing style. I know believers who genuinely weep at pretty much every Christmas play and Easter musical, and it’s not because they’re gullible or easily-manipulated: they’re just sensitive to God’s love and His sacrifice, and that feeling blessedly renews in them over and over.
If we are going to cultivate a spirit of wonder and joy as believers, wouldn’t it be good to drain those cynical parts of us? To recognize that we are not the final arbiters of taste, edification, growth, and progress in the church and that we can’t go around assigning motivations to people who enjoy or experience things differently than we do? That earnestness and simplicity has value? To acknowledge that God’s children have been made in a delightful variety and can enjoy varied amusements and ways of being and doing in the world? To understand that people who do the things we wouldn’t do or enjoy the things we wouldn’t enjoy aren’t wrong or stupid or foolish or unlearned, but simply being themselves?
A long while ago, a friend of mine from church came to visit while I was in graduate school. We were hanging out in my study, which I had decorated with a colorful abundance of doo-dads, signs, and pictures. It was my “happy place” room. She glanced around at the décor and asked, with barely disguised condescension, “Don’t you ever want to re-do this room?”
“No, why?” I asked.
She gave me a slight pitying smile. “It’s a little childish, isn’t it? For a woman pursuing a Ph.D.?” Her gaze settled on a smiley face notepad that I had, and I felt my cheeks burning. “Or—wait, no, I get it. You probably just want to be comforted by these little things through all your grad-school stress.”
Looking back, I see the classic cynic model at work: I have assigned you a negative motivation for doing this thing I have deemed silly or unnecessary. It never occurred to her that I didn’t consider it silly or childish, or that I did it simply because I liked it.
I forget how I replied; I think I mumbled a reply about liking my room, or maybe not having time to worry about how it looked. But I remember that I felt embarrassed and ashamed and somehow like I’d done something wrong by owning a smiley face memo pad and hanging cheerful Japanese-language lessons cut-outs by my desk.
Fortunately, I’ve long since unlearned that unearned embarrassment. But I don’t ever want to make anyone else feel like that—especially not a brother or sister in Christ, and especially not about an element of their faith practice. Our culture is rife with cynicism and deeply defined by it already—and so I suspect the most radical thing to do is simply opt out.
There’s no need for Christian cynics. The world has too many already as it is.