Part 1 of an interview with Steve Brown,
Author of Talk the Walk:
How to Be Right without Being Insufferable
It can be difficult to be a Christian in today’s culture. Not only is the outside world hostile to Christians and their faith but the voices that speak loudest don’t always speak for the masses. There are a lot of assumptions out there about what Christians do and don’t believe. With all this hostility, speaking up about issues related to faith can be intimidating. However, in his new book Talk the Walk: How to Be Right without Being Insufferable (New Growth Press), Key Life Network founder Steve Brown calls Christians to step out and speak up about what they know to be true.
This attitude-altering book invites Christians to cultivate both boldness and humility in communicating gospel truth. By uncovering self-righteousness and spiritual arrogance, Talk the Walk shatters stereotypes and helps believers consider how they present the good news without watering it down.
Q: When did the culture shift to dismiss what Christians have to say as nonsense at best and outright lies at worst start, or has it actually always been this way to an extent?
To some extent, unbelief has always been with us and is nothing new. However, at least in America, for most of our history, the Christian faith has been the “favored” religion with money, power and leverage. Almost without exception, no politician could be elected without at least nodding in God’s direction. I’m an old guy, and I can remember when major newspapers often published the sermons of prominent clergy in their city. (Not only has that changed, those newspapers are now struggling to stay viable.) In those days, church membership was a prerequisite for achieving “standing” in the community and, it should be said, making a good living. The place to get social acceptance was the church. That has obviously changed. My friend David Zahl in his book Seculosity says religion is hard to destroy but easy to rebrand. He says hardly anyone in America is “not” in church . . . just a different kind of church with a different kind of religion.
Someone once said when people no longer believe in the real God they don’t then believe in nothing . . . they believe in anything. That’s true, but it’s also true they are quite dismissive of the old God and anything to do with the old God. The difference is in a culture of social media, everybody now has a microphone. Everybody can say anything, express any view, hurt as many people, and disrespect, disvalue, and dismiss any belief system held by others they want. Not only that, they can do it anonymously without paying a price. There’s a lusty, materialistic paganism afoot, and it’s having a field day.
Then as a part of the obvious culture shift (sometimes called “postmodernism”), Christians have far less money, power and leverage than we once had. Add to that the fact that we Christians have given unbelievers a lot of ammunition. Christians are characterized (not without reason) as condemning, uptight, and angry judges of those who aren’t Christians. Between that, social media and pop culture, it’s a perfect storm, one that has profound implications for the Christian faith.
Q: You write that some of the meanest, most condemning and arrogant people on the face of the earth are Christians. What truths are we missing out on regarding humility, love and forgiveness?
There is something about religion that can make us weird. I’m an expert given I’ve been (and sometimes continue to be) one of the most arrogant and condemning people I know, and I’ve so little about which to be arrogant and so much in me that needs condemning. What’s with that? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with self-justification, our human need to be accepted and acceptable and the desire to be seen as one of the “cool kids.” If you are into self-justification and self-righteousness (and we all are), there’s probably no better place to go than to religion—with politics running a close second. Someone has said the tighter one makes what C. S. Lewis calls the “the inner ring,” the greater the outer ring. In other words, when it’s an “us/them” paradigm, the natural manifestation of that is arrogance and condemnation.
There’s enough teaching in Scripture (misinterpreted with a shallow exegesis) about the elect and the non-elect, the saved and the lost, the twice born and the once born, that Christianity can easily become a place where we can say, “I may not be wonderful and good, but I’m certainly more wonderful and better than they are.” Add to that the clear moral teaching of Scripture and the fact that religious people are given to seeing their religion as a “moral improvement society,” and you have a platform for condemnation and arrogance. And if we have no reason to be arrogant, it’s a platform where we’re required to fake it.
When we’re “standing for God” there’s no limit to the damage we’re willing to inflict on others who aren’t. Only God knows the pain caused by Christians in their efforts to be on God’s side. God doesn’t need our help, and he was doing fine before we came along. That doesn’t mean Christians should keep quiet about truth. Truth is the “coinage” of the kingdom. But it does mean (and Scripture is clear on the subject) the truth includes and starts with our failure to really believe it and to live it. If Christians don’t lead with humility (genuine humility reflecting the truth of our own failure and sin), we will never get a hearing from those who are already predisposed to reject our truth.
Q: Christians are often accused of self-righteousness, hypocrisy and “selectivity.” In what ways are these things so destructive?
They’re destructive because they’re all efforts of self-justification and based in the denial of reality. People who are justified by God (forgiven, valued, loved and acceptable) don’t have to practice self-justification. In fact, a part of the “shock value” of the Christian witness is the public declaration of one’s own sins and failures, authenticity and a lack of condemnation of others. And speaking of shock value, unbelievers are rarely shocked by Christians. They already have us figured and expect that we will be nice . . . and boring. Frankly, they’re right. We hardly ever create questions.
I remember when President Clinton’s sexual sins and indiscretions became public. Most Christians had a field day. A lot of sermons were preached on the importance of character in our leaders and the shocking moral failure of our president. During those days I would often say from the pulpit that Clinton had given Christians a great platform for our own self-righteousness when it should have been a platform for our witness to the world. What a gift if we had said, “It could have been me. Let me tell you about Jesus, a great Savior for great sinners like me.” I missed several opportunities in those days to gain a hearing. I’ll bet you did too.
The reason Christians are often accused of self-righteousness, hypocrisy and selectivity (making some sins acceptable and others not) is because the accusations are often accurate. A friend of mine says you see a lot of fat preachers yelling at gay people, but few gay people yelling at fat preachers. That, of course, has changed, and those on the outside do as much yelling as those on the inside. Christians don’t have the corner on self-righteousness, hypocrisy and selective offense outrage. It’s part of the human DNA and an unbelievable opportunity for Christians to be different. We generally aren’t good enough to be better than they are, but we can be honest about our hypocrisy in thinking we are. Again, that’s a part of the shock value of our witness.
Q: Being politically/religiously correct is a big issue today. Can you talk about the problems that arise from political correctness?
Political correctness is a tool to abolish free speech, and religious correctness is a tool to sand-down the power of the gospel. My friend Norm Evans (who retired from the NFL) told me one time about a college lineman who went to his coach during a game complaining about the opposing lineman pulling his helmet down over his face. He asked the coach what to do. “Son,” the coach said, “don’t let him do it.” Political and religious correctness is living, speaking and acting within a box someone else has created. Sometimes we need to decide we’re simply not going to let others do that to us. If it offends, it’s time it did.
I believe Christians have lost the shock value of our witness. We read Christian books, go to Christian movies, eat Christian cookies and wear Christian underwear. Sometimes speaking truth, confessing our sins, being human, cutting slack and showing in places Christians don’t frequent can be the very un-political and un-religious platform from which we can speak and receive a hearing.
We have let the pagans and religious people define who we are. Only Jesus can do that.
Q: How are we just like everyone else? Why is identification so important?
At the very heart of the Christian faith is identification. In fact, it’s unique in the world of religions. God identified with his creatures. The Word became flesh. Jesus wasn’t lonely, afraid and weak so we wouldn’t be lonely, afraid and weak—but because we are. He didn’t die just to keep us from dying; he died as we must die. The astounding truth is he was “us,” and it wasn’t a game.
Jesus identifying with us was a lot harder for him than it is and will be for us. That’s because we really are like “them.” The power of the Christian witness isn’t in our purity, faithfulness and goodness. There is probably nothing that hurts our witness more. I know of few people who came to Christ because of Christians’ righteousness, but I know of so many people who came to Christ because of Christians’ honesty. When an unbeliever exclaims, “You too?!” he or she isn’t far from the kingdom.
Q: Why is being the “world’s mother” so bad? Isn’t that what we’re called to be as Christians?
Good heavens, no! We’re not that smart, and we’re too screwed up to be playing that role. I love my church where I’m a member, but I can’t be in leadership. Do you know why? Because what I do (teaching in a seminary, writing books like this one and doing religious media, etc.) causes people who don’t know me to think I know more than I do, and I could cause some real damage. Christians are sometimes like the actor who plays a doctor on television and then opens a surgery practice.
But there is more to it than that. The “mother complex” can degenerate into moralism, manipulation and an inappropriate use of power. It’s so easy to major in minors and to become what we’re not called to be as Christians. That would be a social critic of the world. Again, it’s important we discover the hills on which we will fight and die. There are very few.
Q: What should we never do? And how do those things get us into trouble?
In the book I give as a kind of wrap-up a list of “nevers.” We should never compromise the truth, shout, hide, duck, manipulate, assume, etc. The list is not exhaustive, but hopefully it is helpful. Actually, the list is the natural result of hanging out with Jesus who models very clearly how we should live. It’s a dangerous way to live, and it got him crucified—but it also got him a strong and powerful hearing.
We, of course, probably won’t be crucified, but we will probably get hurt, laughed at and marginalized in plenty of ways. But then there is the hearing we’ll get too. We are here for “them,” and it’s worth the effort.