Calvin's watchdawgI’ve always been somewhat amused/bemused/confused with Online Discernment Ministries (ODM’s) and their fetish with dead theologians who might (or might not) have agreed with them, had they only been alive.  In some cases, idol worship almost fails to go far enough in describing the slavish devotion paid to these past thinkers, some wise, some pompous.   (Don’t get me wrong – there are a number of things useful to learn from the past, but these lessons are not holy writ, nor are they 1:1 comparisons with our current cultural context.)

What becomes really perplexing, though is when ODM’s resurrect these men from the history of the church to condemn Christians or movements not yet born before the theologian’s date of death.

Even more perplexing, still, is when the facts don’t bear the comparisons, or lavish post-mortem praise is incongruent with the response the deceased would have received had he or she still been living today.  In this article, I’d like to reference a few examples of this phenomena, and then take some guesses at why such behavior might be so prevalent from the sad, sick, paranoid corner of the web inhabited by these ODM’s…

In this article, we will examine what seem to be the primary drivers and pitfalls of this rather overused practice:

The Dead Can’t Argue

Probably at the top of the list is the basic fact that, once dead, famous theologians cannot defend or argue on their own behalf.  Therefore, the longer past the date of their demise, the easier it is to cast theologians as being “on our side”.  In essence, for ODM’s, it allows them to take these Dead White Guys (DWG’s) and re-make them into WatchDWG’s.  Once recast, these WatchDWG’s, who represent little more than a caracitures of their actual selves, can be wielded as clubs with which to decry Christians, Christian movements or cultural movements of the day.

In the process, you get stupid titles or pronouncements like “Tozer Speaks out on the Emerging Church” (A.W. Tozer died in 1963, 36 years before ‘emergent’ was even defined as a movement), “Spurgeon Was Right About Modern Evangelicalism” (C. H. Spurgeon died in 1892, about 100 years before Rick Warren put pen to paper for The Purpose-Driven Church), and other rediculous attempts to lend gravitas to an argument that should stand or die on its own.  In reality, the need to resurrect a WatchDWG as a primary source to support your cause demonstrates a lack of faith in your own argument and a bankruptcy of ideas.

Where it really gets bizarre is when WatchDWG’s are brought into arguments to argue things that even surface-level examination of the DWG’s life would reveal to be the OPPOSITE of what is being argued.  For example:

  • There are certain sites which moan, wail and gnash teeth in defense of modernist culture over postmodernism, quoting Spurgeon in their defense.  In the real world, during his life, Spurgeon rose a hue and cry against modernism, fighting it tooth and nail.  In doing so, he and other leaders paved the way to pit science vs. religion in the 20th century, making Christianity seem to be anti-science.  To quote Spurgeon in defense of modernism is like quoting Marx in defense of religion.
  • Other sites like to quote Walter Martin in denunciation of the Catholic Church as a cult, when Martin weathered legions of criticisms during his life for NOT doing the very thing his reinventors attempt to do.
  • Other ODM sites like to quote Tozer from one face, while decrying anything which smacks of mysticism from their other face.  In the real world, Tozer was a self-described ‘mystic’.
  • Still others will legalistically scorn Christians who meet in pubs, or who smoke or drink, all the while quoting Luther left and right (who used gutter language and drank, along with being an anti-semite) and Spurgeon (who smoked and drank).
  • Humorously, sites that would drop dead before quoting Rob Bell, Erwin McManus, Rick Warren or other Evangelical leaders will liberally quote C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other dead theologians who would be far more likely to be found at Saddleback, Mars Hill or Mosaic than at Grace Community Church…

To call this practice “intellectually dishonest” would be like calling professional wrestling “rigged”.  You make the call…

The Dead Can Be Safely Worshipped

The most important thing about WatchDWG’s is that they’re dead.  The dead can’t have a change of heart, or have a Road to Damascus experience – or issue corrections when taken out of context.  This makes slavish devotion to them – on the level of idol worship – a faithless experience, where there is no worry of them growing wise with age and decrying past, rashly spoken words.  It is really embarrassing to have a living idol who flubs up and either forces you to throw him under the bus, or to pretend he didn’t flub.  So, in this regard, dead idols are best.

Additionally, since they died in the past several centuries, chances are we have more of WatchDWG’s writings to meld to whatever purpose might be deemed appropriate.  As a friend of mine once noted, tongue in cheek (and I’ve heard several times since), ‘who needs Jesus’ words when we have Charles Spurgeon?’  Jesus said far too many inconvenient things.  You know, like “love your neighbor as yourself”…

Along with this finality of death, WatchDWG’s inconvenient beliefs and practices (see above) can be easily swept under the rug as time goes by, so as to hone these WatchDWG’s as tools to be wielded in victory over those one disagrees with.  Additionally, with the inconvenient truths of their lives swept under the rug, these figures become figures of higher-than-human authority that cannot be questioned without ’speaking ill of the dead’.

The Dead Allow The Living to be Lazy

It is pretty hard writing new devotional material, particularly when it requires study from multiple sources and deep delving into the scripture.  For ODM’s who worship their WatchDWG’s, though, this is a problem solved.  Simply do the following:

  1. Go to one of many web repositories of Spurgeon/Pink/Tozer/Etc quotes
  2. Highlight the quote you want, and hit CTRL-C
  3. Go back to your blog and hit CTRL-V
  4. Type the attributed author’s name (preferably witout the full source reference so that people can’t see if you’re quoting out of context – see below)
  5. Publish!
  6. Go about the real work of attacking other Christians for not believing everything the way you do (which is, of course, the only possible correct way)

The irony meter has a chance to peg out from time to time when this same ODM publishes the semi-annual criticism of preachers who share sermons – in part or almost the whole – because it is lazy.  Pot, meet kettle.

The Dead Were Prolific Writers/Speakers

One of the most overused tools in ODM-dom is the prooftexted scripture, followed closely by contextomy of those they criticize.  The only problem with these two illicit tools of ODM-ery is that people who are likely to disagree and (often easily) disprove their criticisms, is that the Bible and the works being misrepresented are often readily available to them for quick refutation.

Everyone has quick, ready access to scripture, but not everyone has quick and ready access to the complete works of Tozer – especially not the complete, unabridged works.  With this advantage, most saps who read Tozer speaking out on why XYZ is wrong with the emergent church won’t know that a) Tozer is being taken out of context, and b) the actual context of Tozer’s comment might likely be the opposite of what is being portrayed.

The Dead Lived in Better Times

Human beings hate change – especially when it is happening to them.  In this regard, yesterday is almost always better than today, and the time in which your grandparents lived is always a much more respectful and righteous period of time.  If only we could go back there…

…but we can!  One nice thing about WatchDWG’s is that the lived in generations past where things were better than they are today (for whatever reason).  This bask and glow of nostalgia allows ODM’s to get warm fuzzies from ‘if things were only as they were in the days when Calvin was teaching (let’s just not mention that enough Calvinists hold to teachings far enough apart from Calvin that they would have roasted at the stake by his hands for their heresy.  These are not the droids you’re looking for.  Move along…)’, or ‘if only the family was the way it was in the 50’s when Tozer was the champion of the faith’.

Regardless, pulling in the WatchDWG’s is ‘comfort food’ for today’s ODM watchdoggie, reliving the days when Spurgeon roamed the earth, free of the trappings of postmodern culture and Christians with tattoos.  If only we could go back there…

Moving On

So, while we are on the topic of the dead and comparative religious studies, perhaps it will be good to go 2,000 years back to do some contextual comparison, rather than 200 years ago…  But we’ll save that for Part II, which might be tomorrow, next week, next month or next year… no promises


This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 9th, 2007 at 4:54 pm and is filed under Emergent Church, Musings, Religion/Philosophy, Responses to Slice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

1 Comment so far

  1. Jennifer on January 19, 2008 11:45 pm


    I love your blog, even though I am a 5 point high Calvinist (no, not that kind of high :) ) I am also charismatic, and I love the Catholic doctors of the church. I just want you to know, this Calvinist theologian with a degree, mind you, loves your blog. You have a keen insight into our many problem spots. Most can’t be devotional because they poo poo anything mystical,(hate new worship music that speaks of anything too personal of a walk with Christ) yet many will struggle for hours concerning assurance, when a simple touch of the Holy Spirit, mystical, subjective, would cure that. Anyway, yes, I hate everything emergent, I wouldn’t be caught in the rapture with a rob bell book in my hand…but, I love my emergent brothers and sisters in Christ :) just won’t read their books! I laughed at the dog picture. It’s kewl! (Oh, and loved your insight into Luther! I love David Hazzard who said, “We are all a mixture of clay and gold.” Only Jesus, is the hero.)

    Love ya!

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