I am convinced that discernment is one of the most important skills we as Christians (especially “professional Christians” as I call those of us in vocational ministry) need in our toolkit.

Because every critical flashpoint in our overall evangelical culture is a learning opportunity, but I fear that most of us are missing out because we’re too busy taking sides.

First, let me define what I’m talking about.

When I talk about a flashpoint, I’m talking about any meme, person, project, or event that sparks either a large following, significant controversy, or both. Where anytime you mention it, either in small conversation, in a blog, or from the pulpit, you’re guaranteed to get a response. In the broader American pop culture, there are too many to even mention.

They can be TV shows (“Lost,” “The Office,” “24,” “Sex in the City”).
Or celebrities (Hannah Montana, Britney Spears, Kanye West).
Or movies (“Juno,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “The Matrix”).
Or funny websites (The Onion, Homestar Runner, StuffWhitePeopleLike).
Or politicians (Dubya, Hillary, Obama).

Even a simple catchphrase like “I drink your milkshake!” can provoke either laughs or jeers, depending on the audience.

(Or the year… like, is anyone still saying “jump the shark“?)

But for Christians, these critical flashpoints also exist in our evangelical culture. Brian McLaren, Mark Driscoll, Donald Miller, or anything related to the emerging/Emergent church. Todd Bentley and the Florida Outpouring. Megachurches and their charismatic leaders.

Often the question that I find myself both asking and answering in my conversations about these is, “what do you think about it?”

And this question, I’m sad to say, is often a probing question, designed to get the respondent to reveal their position on the subject of controversy. Do you like it? Do you hate it? Are you for it or against it?

Even when I’m not trying to do this, I do this. Like last week, when I asked my mentor what he thought of The Shack, by William P. Young. We got into a discussion, and he forwarded me a review by a prominent conservative blogger, one that he agrees with, by and large. The review, in a nutshell, says that The Shack is an interesting story and it says some good things, but poor theology makes it not worth reading.

And this got me thinking.

Assuming, just for the sake of discussion, that Tim Challies is right, and that The Shack does have a strain of universalism running through it, why should that automatically disqualify it from being read by Christians and nonbelievers alike?

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not a proponent of universalism. I think those ideas are dangerous and wrong. But most Christians are comfortable using their discernment to watch (and evaluate) movies that don’t have the best theology. Why not books, too? Even if you think it might be wrong, why not see for yourself and find out?

We do ourselves a disservice by focusing only on whether something is simply right or wrong. Not because there is no right or wrong — there definitely is — but because most critical flashpoints receive attention precisely because there is right mixed with wrong, a combination of the orthodox and the profane.

Show me a cult classic, and I’ll show you an opportunity learn something.

People are drawn to The Shack because of the emotional arc of the main character, whose transformation is prompted by an encounter with a triune God that he initially regarded as distant but who turns out to be anything but.

And that reflects a truth about God, that in addition to being holy and omnipotent, he is a personal God. He wants not merely our compliance, but a relationship with Him. That The Shack is a runaway commercial success testifies to the need for people in our culture to connect with God in this way. And even if Young veers into errancy in his depiction of God’s relationship with himself (claiming, for example, that there is no hierarchy in the holy trinity) that doesn’t necessarily negate the parts that are true.

I think what happens more often is that people are confronted with ideas that run counter to their preconceived notions, so they reject those ideas outright without taking the time and energy to find out how much truth exists therein.

This was definitely the case with the controversy surrounding Senator Barack Obama and Dr. Jeremiah Wright. The firestorm of controversy over his greatest hits on Youtube stemmed, in my opinion, largely from two factors:

1.) Christians were shocked by his hyperbolic use of the phrase “God d@mn” in reference to The United States of America. (Because, you know, good pastors don’t cuss.)

2.) White people were shocked — shocked! — that racism is still an issue in this country.

As a result, what could’ve been a catalyst for honest discussion about race, faith, and politics became conflated into a whirlwind of accusations and name-calling.

This is why so many of Wright’s allies were mortified by his treatment by “the media” (a ridiculous but convenient term), because it was obvious from the beginning that certain news-gathering entities were more interested in framing the story to fit their ideas rather than trying to examine both sides of the controversy. (See this clip of a Fox News reporter trying to get a quote from Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago.)

Now again, hear me out here. I do think Wright has been out of line as of late, and I definitely don’t advocate droppin’ the G-D bomb from the pulpit. But demonizing Wright for his rough edges and lack of diplomacy is taking the easy way out. Stephen L. Carter, in his book Integrity, defines the virtue in three steps: a) doing the work of determining what is right, b) taking a stance on the matter, and c) communicating that stance and living with the consequences. You don’t have integrity if you skip the first step in favor of the latter two.

So I’m hoping that as Christians, we’ll walk with integrity when it comes to evaluating the work of our leaders and peers.

I’m thinking now of a controversy that hasn’t really happened yet, but probably will in the next few years.

I’m thinking of Israel Houghton and his group, loosely known as “Israel and New Breed.”

I’ve been a huge fan of his since I first heard New Season in 2001. I use a lot of his music at the church where I lead worship. I have been influenced by his songwriting and the musicianship of his longtime music director, Aaron Lindsey.

But I was having a conversation with a young church planter recently, and he revealed that he does not use Houghton’s music, in part because of his being on staff at Joel Osteen’s church. Osteen is known to be a proponent of what is known as the prosperity gospel, which tends to be self-centered and disproportionately focused around material wealth.

I think it’s true that there is a theological imbalance in a lot of the messages in Israel’s music, but that doesn’t mean that it’s therefore bad and shouldn’t be heard. There is a lot to celebrate in Houghton’s music — a commitment to cultural diversity, a groundbreaking sense of musicality, and an emphasis on the holiness of God, to name three. For someone to exclude all of the great music by Israel and New Breed just because of Joel Osteen strikes me as overly simplistic and reactionary.

What ever happened to using your discernment on a case by case basis?

Because it’s worth repeating, I’ll say it again:

Show me a cultural flashpoint, and I’ll show you an opportunity to learn something.

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