John Piper and the Fire in the Attic

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The best book of devotional theology I have ever read was God is the Gospel by John Piper. The first time I read it, as soon as I was done, I went back to the first page and started right over again. It is simply a fantastic book. And then, apropos of nothing in particular, I started reading it again the other day, and there, right at the beginning Piper puts his finger on the central problem with all this woke stuff.

The best thing about the book is that he was not writing about politics or cultural engagement, or anything like that. It was simply pastoral theology, of the kind that identifies the central shifts and evasions that the sinful heart undertakes when confronted with the glory of God in the face of Christ. And yet there it was, the key to everything, right on the surface, lying in the path.

What is it that keeps us from “seeing and savoring” the Christ of all saving grace? And as a direct consequence of this blindness, what is it that is stirring up record levels of racial enmity in our day? The answer to this most relevant question is sin. Sin is the culprit; sin is doing this. And what is the sin in question? The sin is the flat refusal to see that Christ is the only way to any kind of true glory, and the consequent vainglorious demand that everything in the cosmos outside of you, God included, must cater to you and to your aggrieved feelings.

Definitions Matter

Piper says, right out of the gate, that our current temptation is to define love as “being made much of.” The key to understanding all our cultural confusions is that, as far as the public square is concerned, we insist on this as the very definition of love. Influenced by all of this, we evangelicals might be willing to call ourselves God-centered provided that the good Lord agrees in exchange to be man-centered in His responses to us. We might even be willing to attend a DG conference or two, but only with our emotional fingers crossed. We do this kind of thing because the sinful heart always wants to be flattered, petted, feted, pampered, cajoled, complimented, and catered to. Always. That is what it means to be a sinful heart.

Since this world is populated with sinners, this is a perennial problem, one that evangelists encounter regularly. It is also a pastoral problem, one which wise pastors in the cure of souls have always had to address. But in our day this diseased definition of love has metastasized into a widespread cultural ideology. This central conceit and the gnawing envies that drive it, have conducted their very own long march through the institutions, and this demand to “make much of” every yearning ego in the world is now an essential part of our institutional framework. This is what actually drives all of our identity politics.

This is what it means to be woke.

If you refuse to “make much of” someone’s identity badges—blackness, Pacific islanderness, victimness, womynness, or any other of these intersectionality badges that you have to earn on the way to Woke Eagle Scout, then by definition you do not love them. By definition. Moreover, not only do you not love them . . . come to think of it, you must actually hate them.

And this is why it is so easy for people in the grip of this sin to charge other people with things like racism or misogyny or white supremacy. For such big sins, it is surprising how thin the evidence can be and still get a conviction these days. Thus any white man who does not fall all over himself to flatter another man’s “black experience” is not dismissed as someone who sees that the black man in question is a fraud, or who simply differs, or who grew up in suburbia a bit too sheltered, or who is simply an old-fashioned boor or a clod.

(I want you to notice what I did there in the previous sentence. I treated black men as individuals, capable of righteousness or unrighteousness, and not as members of a justified identity class. And so I want to take this opportunity to apologize to my family, my friends, and to my reading public. This is not who I am as a person, and it does not reflect my core values. Well, actually it does, but you say what you have to say in these times, right?)

No, the man who does not affirm, for whatever reason, any random black man’s “experience” does not love, and is therefore complicit in a veritable rats’ nest of grotesque identity sins—white supremacy, systemic racism, and the rest of that sorry lot. And if he ever makes fun of this whole emotional shakedown operation, as I try to do as frequently as I can, then, as Anthony Bradley might put it if he ever got going good, “woe betide that guy.”

I began my observations with Piper’s book for a couple of reasons. First, the problem he nails is pervasive in the evangelical world today, and second, Piper’s approach to theology is also pervasive in the evangelical world. What this probably means is that a bunch of people have not really been paying attention. Apparently it is possible to go to a Piper conference and not really listen. One of the reasons we don’t recognize the fact of this sin’s rampant imperialism is because it has morphed its gangrenous way into politics and all our cultural issues. We have also made the quiet and erroneous assumption that a radical man-centered theology would have no relevance for cultural politics. But men will sin collectively the way you encourage them to sin individually.

And so, what has happened is that our cultural politics today—identity politics, woke politics, critical theory—is constructed almost entirely out of this man-centered theology. Man-centered theology is to wokeness what eggs are to omelets.

Man-centered theology is to wokeness what eggs are to omelets.

Fire in the Attic

As the evangelical world struggles to come to terms with the intersectionality crisis, we might do better if we developed helpful categories for some of the people involved. Sometimes these lines can get murky, I know. I do understand that there are plenty of “moderate” Christian leaders out there, doctrinally conservative and sound, and faithful, who have grown over the years to think of me as something of an extremist. It is not surprising that I would resist the label—I prefer to think of myself as a fighting moderate. But . . .

But whatever we call it, it is fair to say I have been carrying on for some years now, yelling at everybody about the fire in the attic. So let’s use that image for purposes of pursuing further illumination.

What does extremism mean in a world gone crazy? What does moderation mean when the principalities and powers have all slipped a cog?

I do want to begin by defining the extremes here, but we have to be careful. An extremist on the right should not be defined by extremists on the left, and vice versa. Before we place people on a spectrum, we should ask what standards were used in the making of the spectrum in the first place. For Christians, the answer to that has to be Bible, Bible, Bible.

And so with that said, there are people on the nutso right who think all manner of interesting things. And there are also crazed individuals with fevered brow over on the left, doing a photo negative of those very same interesting things. They are both extreme, if we are using biblical definitions, and so we should not allow them to set the definitions for this discussion. They are the extremists, and so the very first thing we need to bar them from is the authority to define what extremism means.

That said, since we are being the reasonable people, let us start our categorization from “the right.” There are the genuine screw loose “conservatives,” who believe that Joe Biden is a sock puppet for our lizard overlords. These are the ones who have a fire in the attic of their minds. Then there are the conservatives who smelled the smoke from the actual fire in the attic, and have been raising the alarm some years now. If it’s myself that says it, I would put myself in this category. And when you smell smoke before everyone else does, your behavior can seem kind of “out there” to them, at least until they smell the smoke too. So then that brings us to the more moderate conservatives, who have the same views about fires in attics that I do, and who react to it in exactly the same way I would, but only after they are convinced that there is in a fact a fire in the attic. Then last, there are the evangelicals who are actively promoting or playing footsie with all this woke business.

Those people are the fire in the attic.

The Empathy Test

The tactic that is being used on us works because of confusion about empathy, a sin that needs to be critiqued with a nine-pound sledge. Either that, or for the moderate conservatives just joining us, perhaps with a cricket bat or canoe paddle. Sympathy is simply Christian compassion, and who would ever argue with that? But empathy, as it is being promoted today, is the demand that other people make much of you on your terms, with dire consequences coming straight at them if they don’t.

If they don’t play ball, they will be cancelled. And they will be cancelled because they are haters, and we know they are haters because they do not love, and they do not love because they disagree with the definition of love that is now mandatory in pretty much every direction a man might look.

If you want some truly helpful background on all of this, I would highly recommend the conversation I had with Joe Rigney on Man Rampant. The full episode is only available through the Canon App, but the trailer for it is below.

Our discussion revolved around the crucial distinction between empathy and sympathy, and failure to deal appropriately with that distinction is why so many good leaders in the evangelical world are currently in a really bad jam. It truly is a watershed issue. And once you see what is happening, you need to start looking at many of the Christian leaders (who may have let you down in various ways), and sympathize with them. If you empathize with them, you are actually in the process of going over to the other side.

A future post will address how we are to think of those Christian leaders who have not been responding to the crisis in the way you believe they should have. For now, suffice it to say that rank and file Christians who have been dismayed at how this whole thing has been going down need to distinguish between those leaders who are the fire in the attic and those leaders who need to check the batteries in their smoke alarms. More on that some time soon. But for the time being, remember this. The more clearly we see the disaster that is wokeness, the more intelligent sympathy we can extend to men who did not see it in time, or early enough.

In the meantime, this distinction between sympathy and empathy is critical. In our current climate, it is nothing less than the distinction between God-centeredness and man-centeredness, and that distinction is never a trifle. Rigney was recently chosen to be the next president of Bethlehem College and Seminary. He is a careful student of Scripture, of Jonathan Edwards, of C.S. Lewis, and of John Piper. Because he is sympathetic to his adversaries, he will give them a fair shake, and because they have bought into the empathy lie, they will not be returning the favor anytime soon. So if the broader evangelical world has not grasped this central implication of Piper’s teaching, Joe Rigney most certainly has. In the discussion we had on Man Rampant, and in a few other articles he has written on this subject, he has touched the thing with a needle.

And the distinction that he makes is one that you will need to master if you want to make any sense out of the great evangelical unraveling. The thing that has held historic evangelicalism together is the gospel, and every form of woke is a denial of that gospel. It is not a mere political or cultural error; it is antichrist. If woke religious sentiment is admitted into the evangelical movement, as it has been, the word that comes to mind is smithereens.

So watch that interview, and reflect on it deeply. Push it into the corners.

Whiter by the Day

In the meantime, coming back to yours truly, I anticipate that I will be getting whiter by the day.

This is because I am engaged in ongoing controversy with woke evangelicals. And the woke evangelical tries to steer whatever church or movement he is in by means of his or her hurt feelings. So far lots of people are letting them. The short form is this: “You are in deep sin because I am sad. And the sadder I get, the worse you must be.”

And so it is that the sadder these people will get, the whiter I will get. And because they have embraced a gospel that forgives nothing, cleanses nothing, and restores nothing, things look to be getting really sad. In fact, they will get so sad that I am likely to make it up to the rank of Grand Wizard in the Klan. But if that happens, I do promise extensive reforms.

And some of my moderate conservative friends wince. Why do you make jokes like that? Don’t you know that they will seize on that, and they will hasten to make memes? Don’t you care what they think? And the answer is no—no, I don’t. And you shouldn’t either.

One Last Thing

One of the things that happens when a man moves from teaching to preaching is that he moves from the third person to the second person. There is nothing wrong with teaching, as it is most informative and helpful, and when the godly student or disciple hears it he makes his own applications. He can extract from third person teaching exactly what he ought to get. So when the Lord taught about a “certain man” in a parable, and the one who has ears to hear does in fact hear.

But preaching done right drives it home.

One time, many years ago, I was in another city on a trip and was taken to a megachurch that was part of the big noise at the time. The sermon was biblically grounded, and informative, and actually quite good, but I felt at the time that what the minister had done was give all the people a polished spike, along with some instructions, so that they could all go home and when they found a convenient time, drive it into their own hearts.

But one of the tasks of the preacher is to drive the truth of the gospel home at inconvenient times.

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Acts 2:37 (ESV)

And one of the reasons this happened is that Peter had moved to address them in the second person.

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Acts 2:22-23 (ESV)

What this means is that we might be able to get a pretty large group to agree that when someone wants God and everybody else to “make much of him,” this is a sin. It is safe to come to this conclusion, because when you come to this conclusion in a seminary classroom, and decide all together that this hypothetical person in the hypothetical counseling situation needs to stop being so man-centered, nobody gets mad and starts plotting to kill you.

“When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.”

Acts 5:33 (KJV)

So when do such problems arise?

And they sought to lay hold on him, but feared the people: for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them: and they left him, and went their way.

Mark 12:12 (KJV)

This doctrine about man-centeredness has a sharp end to it. Real trouble doesn’t start until someone makes the claim that all our woke ambassadors are heralds of a man-centered message, with our little bruised feelings turned into little christs, such that if this “gospel” is embraced and followed out, the end thereof is damnation. Someone needs to tell the emissaries of woke that they are bringing a disaster down upon their own heads, and their own families. The message needs to be “you are peddling a man-centered message that dishonors Christ, and you must be summoned to a real repentance.”

So if you want to keep driving that car of yours down Woke Avenue, you are just two left turns away from your car flipping over the lip of the Abyss. More of us would be out there posting warning signs, but the people who want to drive that way keep pelting them with rocks, and calling them racists.