Predigested Obsolescence

September 27, 2017

by Carl Trueman

In 1960, John Steinbeck drove across America in a pickup truck, accompanied by his dog, Charley. The book that resulted, Travels with Charley in Search of America, is a touching and melancholy reflection on the state of the nation.

One of the most memorable passages—at least for this Presbyterian—is Steinbeck’s description of a church service in Vermont. What he witnessed was apparently a traditional Protestant service focusing on the fact that the primary problem facing the congregation was that they had offended a holy God. Steinbeck’s comment on the contrast with urban—and urbane—attitudes of his day is striking:

The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church.

Therapy has trumped theology many times throughout the years.

Steinbeck was presumably speaking of therapists when he referred to “our psychiatric priesthood,” but the history of modern Christianity in America indicates that real priesthoods, too, muscled in on the therapy act. Norman Vincent Peale, the current president’s spiritual guide, made psychology and the “feel-good factor” foundational to his church’s message, a gospel that continues in the work of prosperity preachers such as Joel Osteen. Therapy has trumped theology many times throughout the years.

Today, the therapeutic has taken on a decidedly political tone. Making the electorate feel good—or at least that part of the electorate upon which a given party depends for its success—is critical to the current political task. In the polarized world of the twenty-first century, this often means silencing those who say things that might make the chosen constituency uncomfortable. This is now often achieved by playing the oppressive/hurtful speech card—as the referendum on gay marriage in Australia is currently demonstrating. Yes, you may vote to oppose gay marriage, but to argue that position in public is vile, because it is hurtful. The therapeutic seeks to starve democracy of the air it needs to survive: free and open exchange of arguments and ideas. . . .

. . .continue reading at First Things.

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of church history at WTS.

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