Book Review: Toxic Spirituality

Toxic Spirituality: Four Enduring Temptations of Christian Faith by Eric Gritsch

Fortress | Amazon | CBD

Emeritus Professor of Church History at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary Eric Gritsch offers a “reality check” to the church at large concerning four strains of Christianity that have “weakened, indeed abused, the core of Christian tradition.”  Who are these four horsemen who have run roughshod over Christianity’s core and left it a trampled and disfigured mess?  Anti-Semitism, Fundamentalism, Triumphalism, and Moralism.  Gritsch takes on each rider (keeping with the theme) head on, mincing no words and pulling no punches.  The use of the word “toxic” in the title itself gives readers a glimpse of the book’s tone and readers will come away from this book with no doubt the author views these four “temptations” as having poisoned the well from which Christians throughout history have drunk.  At the outset, Gritsch acknowledges that there are other toxic expressions of Christianity that are dangerous (e.g. racism and sexism), but believes them to have their origins in “the cesspool of the four poisons that threaten historical Christianity” (6).

As stated above, Gritsch begins with the notion of anti-Semitism.  With each of these four, he begins with a historical analysis of the birth and development of each, which proves to be a great help, particularly for readers who are not so clear on the history through which the author moves. The author notes writes more of what he calls “anti-Judaism” than pure anti-Semitism, though obviously the former is inextricably bound to the latter. One thing that Gritsch does not do is white wash history–he lays it out in all its ugliness for inspection and interpretation. Gritsch tags such revered early churchmen as Chrysostom and Augustine for their role in at least creating an atmosphere of anti-Judaism and later leaders such as Luther do not escape criticism either. Gritsch also notes the role of supercessionism in the perpetuation of anti-Judaism in the middle ages and beyond. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are perhaps obvious out-workings of anti-Judaism, but what may be somewhat surprising is the Catholic church’s rather unfortunate cooperation with the Nazis. Though their relationship was not indicative of full blown anti-Semitism, the mere reality of such a relationship is another chapter in the long history of misdeeds by the church. Of course, it wasn’t just the Catholic church that was tangled up in this dark era of European history, but the Protestants as well. The last part of the chapter Gritsch writes essentially that if the apostolic testimony about Christ had been heeded, anti-Judaism perhaps could have been far less prominent. He rightly notes that the NT contains plenty of polemics against particular aspects of first-century Judaism, but nothing that could be considered anti-Semitic (though I am sure plenty would disagree). Given his disavowal of supercessionism, Gritsch holds that the church hasn’t replaced Israel or in any way become the new Israel, but in some mysterious way Israel and the church are both of God’s people and will receive eschatological blessing.

The second chapter concerns fundamentalism and was easily the one I most looked forward to. However, I was quite surprised that Gritsch does not define fundamentalism quite the way I might. I fully expected the discussion to center on KJV-onlyism. What I got was discussion of various evangelicals, their organizations, and the role they played in American church life and politics. Gritsch defines fundamentalism as “an excessive adherence to the literal interpretation of the Bible”, which he says is also know as “bibliolatry” (45). This extreme stance on the bible gave rise to fundamentalism in general and numerous offshoots along various trajectories. Fundamentalism of the evangelical variety prided itself on its desire to separate from the “liberal” wing of Christianity. One aspect of this was what Gritsch calls the “crusade against Darwinism,” a conflict that has been rekindled of late. Any perceived threat to the fundamentals of Christianity, whether Darwin’s theory of evolution or liberal Christianity, was fuel for the fire and fundamentalism thus sought to be wholly separate.

As I mentioned, I was quite surprised that the author did not discuss KJV-onlyism, perhaps one of the best known (or infamous) strains of fundamentalism in modern American Christianity. In addition to the evangelical-political fundamentalism of the 20th century, Gritsch devotes several pages to the discussion of traditionalism, which in turn gave rise to the papacy and Roman Catholic fundamentalism. Let the fun begin! As with evangelicals in the previous section, Gritsch does not tread lightly in his overview of Roman Catholic traditionalism. In Protestant eyes, particularly those of more conservative evangelicals, Roman Catholics are frequently (and unfairly) eyed as suspicious because of the authority given to tradition. Gritsch lasers in on a couple of aspects of RC traditionalism that stemmed from the church’s struggle to define tradition and its role in church governance—the authority of Rome and Marian devotion. The fusing of scripture and tradition by Second Vatican Council as the “single sacred deposit of the Word of God which is entrusted to the church” provokes some Gritsch’s harsher criticism. He claims that Catholic traditionalist fundamentalism gave birth to an unholy Trinity: tradition, Scripture, and the magisterium. Whether evangelical or Catholic, fundamentalism is “an attempt to claim authority over a sacred tradition as an antidote for a society that has strayed from its cultural moorings.” It is “marked by a continual drive for security among anxious believers who feel destined to preserve a certain way of life and thought, grounded in a preferred culture” (77).

Chapter three concerns triumphalism, which Gritsch traces back to the “unholy alliance” of the state and the church initiated under the rule of Constantine and perpetuated by his successors.  Gritsch astutely notes “It is an irony of history that the first political benefactor of Christianity used the title ‘Prince of Peace’ for his ambitious climb to the autocracy” (89). Gritsch continues with an overview of Constantine’s successors and their own quasi-theocratic desires. This breed of Christianity, at least in part, was as oppressive and murderous as extremist sects of Islam are today. Gritsch also give attention to such theocrats as Thomas Müntzer and groups of like-minded folk such as the Anabaptists. The less-theocratic also are discussed, e.g., Calvin, Puritans, Montanists, monastics, Hutterites, etc. Gritsch may be criticized for going after low-hanging fruit in some sections of this chapter; however, the sins committed by Christians throughout history have been fairly well documented and there is little here that will surprise students of Christian history and Gritsch is right to point out some of the more significant people and movements that exemplify what he calls “triumphalism.”

The next chapter concerns moralism, which Gritsch does not so much define as he describes with examples throughout church history, as in the previous chapters. From the seven deadly sins of Pope Gregory I and Dante’s The Divine Comedy to various church councils, from the Enlightenment to the rise of Fundamentalism, moralism is apparently an effort to bring about moral unity among Christians, which ironically enough, tends to happen along denominational or other exclusionary lines.

Chapter five is a concluding section in which the author offers some measure of synthesis and analysis of these dreaded four horsemen whose rampant plodding through Church history have left not only real casualties in the paths they’ve trod, but a damaged witness to those who examine, however briefly, the history of the Church. Gritsch says “Anti-Semitism, Fundamentalism, Triumphalism, and Moralism embody sin in their direct, or indirect, rejection of Christian life as penultimate, and they fall victim to a realized eschatology—as if the hope for the ultimate, eternal life with God in Christ had already been fulfilled. This historical perversion is the most visible symptom of spiritual poisoning” (160).

This being my first read of Gritsch, I must say it was quite good work—astute, brutally honest, and fascinating. Though not without its faults (e.g., I don’t know that I’d quite say that evangelizing Jews is representative of anti-Judaism), Gritsch is spot-on in his analysis of these four elements of Christian history. While other aspects of Christian praxis have likewise morphed into damaging offshoots, Gritsch ably demonstrates the dangers of these four. A great read—plenty of food for thought and prayer here.

Αυτω η δοξα

Signs of the Times

I was flipping through the eight edition of Turabian’s style guide and something caught my eye. I flipped back and I had seen it. There, listed in the index, was the section number for how to cite a text message. A text message! I couldn’t imagine what sort of paper wherein a text message would qualify as a reference, but Turabian has it listed under the section concerning interviews and personal communications, so I guess it’s not too unusual. So, should you ever need to cite a text message and do so to conform to Turban style, they’ve got it covered. Signs of the times in the technological age.

Αυτω η δοξα

Here’s Your Sign

We usually read church signs. They’re big, bright, and meant to be read. So, out of a habit formed over the years, we read church signs if we’re able. The other night, on the way home from my daughter’s basketball practice, I noticed a church sign that caught my eye. What did it say?

church-sign-2

Before I comment, let me offer a disclaimer of sorts. The fact that “educated” is set in quotes gives me a little pause. I don’t know what prompted this particular thought, nor do I know to whom the sign may be referring–all I have is speculation. However, regardless of the referent, the comment is offensive in a couple of ways.

First, even if a particular person, institution, etc, is in view here, it surely would offend anyone who has either pursued education beyond what is required to finish high school and/or those who have committed themselves to teaching others. My wife has been teaching for 12 years and has earned her master’s degree, so she would fit both categories. Also, this church is located only a few blocks from the school district’s central headquarters!

Second, as readers here likely know, theological education has been a major component of my own life. As I am about halfway through the PhD program at DTS, this sentiment is very offensive to me and others who have walked this path.

There is a notion in the minds of many Christians that is, sadly, all too common, namely that all we need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit to understand the Scriptures. Again, I don’t know if seminarians or biblical studies/theology students are in mind on this sign, but I can’t shake the suspicion this is so. Admittedly there are always seminary grads who parade their achievement in the face of others who have not received the same education and/or use it to prop themselves up as the authoritative arbiter of biblical interpretation. Such attitudes are indeed deplorable. However, many (perhaps most) PhD students in biblical/theological studies are not there to bolster their own knowledge in order to lord it over others; rather, they pursue knowledge in order to serve God by helping others sort through the numerous difficulties one faces when reading the Bible.

Whatever the referent, it is simply ignorant to claim that education (of whatever sort) moves a person farther away from God. Yes, knowledge that is built up for its own sake can certainly achieve that end, but knowledge also serves to help us know God better. Because I don’t know what prompted this particular statement, I realize I may be wrong; however, such a blanket statement about being educated is simply wrong. Education is a virtuous thing, one that many people do not have the opportunity to pursue. I have devoted my life to this and it hasn’t been easy on my family or me, so to read such a statement on a church sign, well, bothers me to say the least.

Αυτω η δοξα

Quote of the Day

Today’s quote is from a veritable well of quotable quotes, Dr. Jim West, who says of those currently occupying the White House and Congress,

May God bless America. By removing all of you from office this election.

Amen and amen. You can read the whole letter here.

Αυτω η δοξα

Fundy Mail: The Tim Tebow Edition

Alright boys and girls, it’s time for another edition of Fundy Mail here at Εις Δοξαν! Today you’re in for a real treat! Today’s letter is from a gentleman in Colorado Springs, CO, who claims that he has had roughly a dozen dreams over the last couple of years that indicate revival is coming to Colorado and will spread from there throughout the nation! Isn’t that wonderful news?!? He tells more:

  1. It will be brought about not by man and churches, but by the Lord God Himself, just like in the first century with miracles, signs and wonders! SPLENDID!
  2. God is not pleased with, in fact angry, with his church for seeking the things of this world more than him. *bad bad USA*
  3. The church is not obeying Colossians 3:1-2. (who needs the rest of the bible!)
  4. He is upset with charismatic prosperity doctrine (ok, God is mad about that!).
  5. He is angry at the sin in the church, e.g. divorce, legalized adultery, fornication (especially among the youth), idolatry (TV, Hollywood), and general worldliness. Ok, some those things are all bad–two in a row!

He then shares a delightful story about two sisters in Scotland, one of whom was blind (huh?), who started praying for revival and after two years God brought Scotland’s greatest revival ever! He then beseeches pastors to do likewise. Why, you ask? I quote, “Your prayers could play a part in making my dreams a reality!” Well then, let’s get to it–we’ve got dreams to get fulfilled!

Page two is a rambling rant about some instance of a (yes, a singular) conservative Baptist pastor) and his disagreement with an organization and how that puts him in agreement with the Church of Christ. And believe me, that is a BAD thing!

But wait kiddos, page three is the most exciting of all nine–it’s a polemic against Florida and all their wicked bathing-suit-clad inhabitants!!! Emblazoned atop this page is a picture of Broncos QB Tim Tebow posing with a young lady in a bikini. Our author is quick to point that if this is really Tim (and it certainly appears to be), then this is a “man of God with his arm around a near naked young woman not his wife!” ABOMINATION!!! As you’re probably asking yourself, who is responsible for this, um, ABOMINATION? Why, who else–the state of Florida!

It is because he spent much of his life in Florida, land of nakedness, where nearly all young people go around nearly naked and cowardly pastors say not a word? As I understand it, Tim is a Baptist and so I doubt that he ever heard a sermon dealing with immodest dress of women. The beaches were not nearly so bad when in earlier decades women wore only one piece bathing suits, but now they reveal 98% of a woman’s body as above. There is only one word to describe it: SIN!!!

So, as you can see, there is irrefutable evidence that because Tim Tebow is from Florida and he is willing to participate in abominable acts means that women will feel too much pressure “to be sexy and show off their bodies so they can attract a man like Tim!” Bad Tim, BAAAAD!

Furthermore, our author believes Tim has acted irresponsibly by revealing his body. “…he must not realize that he should not frequent beaches and pools as a man of God since they are a part of the devil’s kingdom.”

Well kids, I hope you have learned some important lessons today: 1) You are to pray so that another’s dreams will become reality, 2) it’s bad to agree with Church of Christ, 3) Florida is the land of nakedness–if you live there you will be mostly naked most of the time and God will destroy you for it, and 4) stay away from the beaches and pools–they are the devil’s kingdom!

That’s all for this week! Join us next time as we read more Fundy Mail!

Αυτω η δοξα