Rampant Crap Theology: another Christian Specialty

Desperation for purpose in the Cosmos

It’s a pretty good bet that not one in a thousand churchgoers today could pick out Karl Barth in a line-up—or be able to tell you what he did. Yet he was one of the most prolific theologians of the 20th century; he produced a 14-volume work called Church Dogmatics, written between 1932 and 1967. He even made the cover of Time magazine in 1962.

Nor would many churchgoers these days have the patience or stamina to get through some 8,000 pages of Barth’s exposition of the Christian faith. But never mind, academically trained theologians write for other theologians and clergy; for generations to come, Barth’s thought will be the subject of countless books, essays, articles, and doctoral dissertations. So much time will be wasted. Laypeople do not need to be persuaded to stay away from that black hole.

But never mind, too, because laypeople create their own pop-theologies, aided all too often by Adam Houge, SQuire Rushnell, Joel Osteen and countless other prolific evangelicals. The likes of Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson add to the brew of bad theology, e.g., hurricanes happen because God is pissed off about gay marriage.

Such ravings are actually evil theology.

But I want to address here the ordinary crap theology that we hear every day—from ordinary Christians who don’t seem to grasp what they’re saying. But they gotta try to make sense of all the bad stuff that hits us every day, so they cling to the hope that things unfold according to plan. The Cosmos is driven by divine purpose, isn’t it? So God must have his hand in everything. The bad things—however horrible—are part of the scheme of things. Hence one of the all-time favorite fragments of crap theology is everything happens for a reason.

Although humans mess things up by sinning, it’s very hard to let go of the idea that God is in control. How could it be otherwise if God knows when even a sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29), and that the hairs of our heads are numbered (Luke 12:7)? Why would a deity be this intensively involved in his creation just to be a spectator?

When presented with examples of egregious divine neglect—not intervening in the Holocaust, not preventing mass shootings, not blocking a tsunami—believers retreat to “it’s all part of a great plan that we, as mere humans, are not privy too.” The reason must be there: we just can’t figure it out. Sophisticated theologian/apologists, masters of sophistry, do a bit more gerrymandering, but they merely develop variations on this theme. But, oh no, we rarely hear, “God has lost control…these things are out of his hands.”

In fact, folks are encouraged to believe that God’s involvement is extreme. In his book—whose title sounds like a course description at Hogwarts—The 7 Most Powerful Prayers that Will Change Your Life Forever!, Adam Houge writes,

“God wants to connect with you. He is an intimate and loving God who seeks you fervently, daily. He is always looking for an opportunity to be a part of your life and a part of your day. He wants to know you perfectly and intimately.”

This is crap theology, a product of wishful thinking, meant to sell.

Not to be outdone, SQuire Rushnell, author of the popular God Winks books, assures his readers that coincidence is one of God’s most useful tools. Yes, God is very much in the details:

“Every time you receive what some call a coincidence or an unanswered prayer, it’s a direct and personal message of reassurance from God to you—what I call a godwink. It’s similar to when you were a kid sitting at the dining room table. You looked up and saw someone you loved looking back. Mom or Dad or Granddad. They gave you a little wink. You had a nice feeling from that small silent communication. What did it mean? Probably—‘Hey kid . . . I’m thinking about you right this moment. I’m proud of you. Everything is going to be all right.’ That’s what a godwink is.”

Crap theology—no wait, this is silly amateurish commercial theology—meant to sell.

If God is so clever at micro managing, he can’t just get a pat on the back when things go well. The problem with everything-happens-for-a-reason is that the bad stuff has to be credited to God too. Some Christians seem to say, “Sure, why not?” One of the most prominent purveyors of crap pop-theology is Kurt Cameron, surely a contender for Dumb Christian of the Year Award. He has explained why everything happens for a reason; this is an excerpt from a news report:

The actor said the hurricanes are “a spectacular display of God’s immense power” and he didn’t send them without reason. “When he puts his power on display, it’s never without reason. There’s a purpose. And we may not always understand what that purpose is, but we know it’s not random and we know that weather is sent to cause us to respond to God in humility, awe and repentance,” he said in a video on Facebook. The 46-year-old said the hurricanes should remind us that God “supplies our life, breath and everything else so that you and I reach out to him.” He asked his fans to use his remarks about the hurricanes as a way to answer their childrens’ questions about why the storms were sent. “Remind them that God is the blessed controller of all things,” he said. “He is the one who gives us peace, security and strength in the midst of the storm and that he uses this to point us to him and to his care for us.”

“God is the blessed controller of all things. Think about that. Take all the time you need. Far from guaranteeing purpose in the Cosmos, it would mean instead that the god in charge is incompetent and arbitrary. Is there any theologian—academician or pop-evangelical variety—who would welcome the task of dropping in at Dachau or Buchenwald in 1944 to buck up the inmates with the assurance that they shouldn’t take their suffering too seriously: “It’s part of God’s big-picture plan, you see, so cheer up, it must be okay.”

It’s my experience that the folks who say, “Everything happens for a reason” usually have minor positive outcomes in mind—when least expected after something has gone wrong. Yes, of course, there are consequences, some of them good, even after misfortune or disaster. But that doesn’t mean that the good stuff has emerged because a deity has been tinkering—or that there is a master plan “behind it all.” There is no evidence whatever for anything of the kind.

Sometimes in popular culture there are voices that resist banality. I recently saw the Broadway musical Bandstand, and what a relief to hear these lyrics, a mother to her daughter:

Everything happens, just that
Everything happens
An event, or a death
A catastrophe

Any reason as to why
Is a reason you supply
It just happens
Everything happens

It's not fate, no great plan
It's not destiny
Putting faith in that cliché
Gives your own free will away
When things happen
And they will happen

You can waste your whole damn life
Assigning bits of philosophic meaning
To the failures and misfortunes intervening
And I'll tell you what you'll get
Just a lifetime of regret

No, no, no
There is no reason for why
Everything happens
It's the changing of a season
It's a fact
And it's a constant

And the only sane response
Is to adjust
Not to wish it hadn't happened
When it must

Now the church will tell you one thing
And your friends, perhaps another
If I were you I'd listen
To your slightly dotty mother
Who lost out on her own fair share
Of good times and of laughter
What matters when things happen
Is what happens after

Maybe there are just as many people who simply say, “shit happens”—because they sense that there are no gods on duty. That’s the way the world works and always has worked. The best theology is a-theology.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.