Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In which Tim Challies realizes Ann Voskamp is a real person

Canadian pastor and writer Tim Challies is a book reviewer. He runs a very successful and widely read website at Challies.com. Many people, including myself, read his book reviews of Christian books with eagerness, because he is loving, credible, and discerning. As for discerning, Tim wrote the book on discernment, literally. He is a good writer and a gentle Christian even when he writes a negative review.

Last week Mr Challies reviewed Ann Voskamp's book "One Thousand Gifts". He gave it a 'not recommended,' stating at the first paragraph of his three paragraph conclusion, "Though One Thousand Gifts is not without some strengths, in its own subtle way I believe that it can and will prove dangerous, at least to some. Many will read it, embrace their need for gratitude, and genuinely be more grateful to God. This is well and good. There are many books that contain valuable takeaways even if they also contain significant weaknesses. It doesn’t make you a bad person or an immature Christian if you’ve read it and enjoyed it. But perhaps you’d do well to make sure you haven’t bought into it all the way." He goes on to praise its strengths but overall he cautions the discerning reader because the book fails to "more clearly display the power of Scripture to show us our shortcomings and display the gospel’s power over them." He noted what many have noticed, the book's drift toward Gnosticism.

Okey dokey then.

Then a day later Mr Challies received an invitation to lunch at Mrs Voskamp's house, two hours away. Gulp. Having to face her as a person so shortly after his review of the book, he wrote a retraction essay titled, "In Which I Ask Ann Voskamp's Forgiveness..."

He wrote, "Having said all of that, something happened inside me when I saw Ann’s name in my inbox, and that’s what has compelled me to write this little article. Seeing her name brought a sudden and surprising realization and with it a twinge of guilt and remorse."

He makes it clear he had no moral qualms about not recommending the book, but rather that his guilt lay in the fact that he perceived that he treated a sister in the faith badly. He said, "Yet in my review I had treated her as if her words mean less than mine, as if I was free to criticize her in a way I would not want to be criticized."

Now you lost me.

Perhaps I am a mean and unloving person, insensitive to the more nuanced expressions of empathy and oblivious to the tender affections emanating from others. I must be, because I read nothing in Mr Challies review that lacked sensitivity or indicated he had approached the task of reviewing a sister's book with anything less than full bore mental acuity tempered with affection and mindfulness of our sanctified position before Christ.

Therefore when I read the forgiveness essay I was dismayed for two reasons. First, because of what he wrote here:

"Looking back at my review, and perhaps even more, the process of writing it, there are at least two things that concern me. The first is that I would have said certain things differently had I known that she and I might soon be sharing a meal together."

Of course we would write or say things differently if we knew that we'd be facing the person within the next week. That's the problem. The point is NOT to write or say things differently if we knew we would be seeing them the next moment but to prayerfully approach the task and write as the Spirit leads, speaking the truth in love. And then standing by it. Mr Challies wrung his hands over language he intimated he thought borders on hate-speech regarding Ms Voskamp's literary style, here, "There is clearly a kind of appeal to it so that those who don’t hate it, love it.”'

Seriously? A commenter stated "I read your review of her book and found nothing wrong with it. You, of all people, do not need to worry about sounding unloving. I sure hope Rob Bell never invites you over for a BBQ."

Exactly.

Far be it for me to say one way or another how a person feels about things they have said or done, and obviously Mr Challies felt remorse and so did what he did, which is publicly seek forgiveness for language he felt was too strong. I do not feel it was unloving language, but he did. So be it. It was his subjective call to make.

But the second front on which I felt dismay for this public hand-wringing is based on a more objective observation: the general climate of discernment within Christian circles. Christians these days are already assaulted with appeals to never say anything bad about anyone for any reason, especially against teachings a fellow believer brings- even if the teachings are false! The climate is to stay 'unified' and remain above the fray so as to avoid conflict. His forgiveness essay sets those of us back who do not hold to that ecumenical, let's all get along at all costs mentality, and in a big way.

Later, in the comments section, a Reg Schofield commented, "I'm a bit confused here Tim. The review itself was not a direct attack on her as a person but on what you perceived as her weakness in how she handles scripture and certain views of the gospel narrative. Now it is true that what one writes is a reflection of ones soul but if what is written shows some problems, they have to be taken to task. I have read enough of the book to see some truly troubling elements, which she needs to be called out on. Any writer who get published must be willing to be scrutinized. I don't see the need to ask for forgiveness. So if Joel Osteen sends you a e-mail to do lunch, are you going to do the same."

Mr Challies responded, "I guess that is exactly part of the problem; in my mind I was equating the Joel Osteen's of the world and the Ann Voskamp's of the world--lumping all "outsiders" together. There are some people who deserve the harshest kinds of rebuke from Christians; there are others who do not. I have not been careful enough to distinguish between them." And later, he wrote, "I would want to draw a distinction between T.D. Jakes and Ann Voskamp. T.D. Jakes subscribes to heretical theology; I have never seen anything from Ann Voskamp that would label her a heretic. That's a crucial distinction!"

No it isn't. The implication he makes here is that we musn't say negative things about believers who are bringing false doctrine. It may not be what he intended, but that is the implication.

There are many examples in the bible of speaking plainly to and in front of believers who need correction. I am NOT saying it isn't good to examine our language occasionally to see if we could be serving Christ better with our words. But feeding into the current cultural mentality that we must pick and choose words so as to never hurt another's feelings harms the stand we must sometimes make for Christ. It elevates feelings above the advancement of the Kingdom. Let's contrast what I just said with the biblical examples:

Picture Paul sitting at his desk in Canada. He gets an email reporting that there is sexual immorality in one of his churches. He writes back, "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you."... a couple of verses later he called for them "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." (1 Cor 5:1-2, 5)

He called the people of the congregation arrogant! Paul told them to put the man out of fellowship so satan could deal with him! Now let's picture Paul receiving an invitation to sup with the perpetrator of the immorality the next day, and this prompts him to write what Mr Challies wrote: "I did poorly here and I can see that I need to grow in my ability to critique the ideas in a book even while being kind and loving to its author."

Or Galatians 2:1 where Paul said this: "But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned."

How dare a fellow believer say another believer is condemned! But Paul did, and he didn't retract it later just because he was invited to have a sandwich at Peter's house. Paul made no 'crucial distinction' about the person he said it to. And it was language that was a lot rougher than Mr Challies. Yet it is in the bible. Paul said what he said so that doctrine would be upheld, and so that the watching believers, and Peter himself, would return to purity. Did Paul second guess his language, wondering as Mr Challies wrote, "...I can’t deny that somewhere in my mind lurks this insider and outsider kind of thinking which somehow encourages me to extend greater courtesy to one group than another"?" Yet there is no doubt that Paul loved Peter, and extended every courtesy to him.

Peter charged Ananias, a fellow believer, with having a heart filled with satan. He charged Sapphira, Ananias's wife with the same, being a liar.

Paul wrote to Timothy, saying pastors of the church Hymenaeus and Alexander were "blasphemers". (1 Timothy 1:19b-20).

Paul wrote to Timothy again, charging Hymenaeus and Philetus with being irreverent babblers whose false teaching will spread like gangrene and upsets the faith of some. (2 Tim 2:16-19). Strong language!

Paul did not later retract and write the following: "There is value in engaging the ideas in any [teaching], and especially a [teaching] about this Christian life, but the desire to uphold truth has no business coming into conflict with love for another person. Truth and love are to be held together as friends, not separated as if they are enemies. In my desire to say what was true, I failed to love. I ask [Hymenaeus and Philetus's] forgiveness for this."

And herein lies the problem. The current cultural Christian mentality is that speaking against false doctrine is unloving.

In some cases, we are called to conflict. Conflict is loving, when it has the ultimate goal of restoring some to the faith, or of warning others of false doctrine. Mr Challies' statement above unfortunately advances the false notion that conflict is to be avoided at all costs.

Have we all become so sensitive that we receive the gentle words Challies utters as hate speech to be immediately retracted on the flimsy premise that we will soon have a BBQ together? Yes. And here is the result.


Beth Moore ‏tweeted, "Thank you for this important piece. Sometimes I think God's point with us is more toward mutual esteem than agreement."

Mutual esteem is more important to God than Christian agreement on doctrine? Esteem?

Doctrine always brings disagreement. Avoiding it means you avoid standing on it. Period. But the 'let's all get along crowd' is going to leap on Mr Challies' highly public hand wringing, forgiveness sensitivity training exercise and run with it. You mark my words.

To be clear, I am not for conflict as a rule. In a verse before the one where Paul charged Hymenaeus and Philetus with being irreverent babblers, Paul wrote, "Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." (2 Tim 2:141-5).

The key is rightly handing the word of truth- and knowing when a quarrel advances the kingdom and when it doesn't. Paul was much more straightforward and blunt in his charges against believers, and Mr Challies is anything but blunt. It is my opinion Mr Challies' forgiveness essay, as gentle as it was to begin with, rather than advance the call for discernment and exhortation against falsity, ultimately harms it.

13 comments:

  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    Excellent post as usual. I agree with you completely. I did not read this book as I researched it before hand and read reviews to guide me. There are far too many Christians who are so afraid to speak the truth, in favor of unity and a strong front. I know this first hand when I left my church and very few were open to any "criticism". I could see the effects of Rick Warren's gospel coming in. I was even told "Touch not my annointed" by someone. Thanks again, Laura.

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    1. Hi Laura,
      I laughed at the "touch not God's anointed" tripe. I was on the receiving end of that one too.

      I know someone who is in love with One Thousand Gifts book and wants to give it to me. I had planned to use Challies' review as a reason explaining my aversion to it, but he muddied the waters with his apology. It is important for those who have a speaking gift to be loving, yes, to stand on truth, definitely, but also to be *clear*.

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  2. We need the truth to be presented clear and with love. Muddy waterholes are becoming bigger and more. I have not read the book but have it. I've stayed away because of my own caution which lately God's Word has been top priority, to know Him.

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  3. Here is a good essay on the Challies/Voskamp issue, of which I agree with most of the author's assertions (except for his assertion that Mr Challies is proud). He said:

    "Can you imagine if we all did this [ate with false teachers] and then backed off our biblical reviews, or sermons or classes or seminars for some, for exposing false teaching in the church!? Guess what happens when we engage them? We take off our Berean bi-focals, put down our Bibles, change our minds and say things like, “they’re our brother(s) or sister(s) in Christ,” like Challies just did of Voskamp; and so did Piper of Rick Warren..." and urged him to "Resist the temptation to recant from good Eph 5:11 reviews."

    hear hear. More at
    http://thebereanlibrary.com/archives/3618

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  4. J.L. here. I agree with his apology, I believe he's right.

    I am not much into reading books, and when I do, other than the bible, most are fiction, and not of the Christian genre, though that's not to say they are bad books, like say Twilight, or Harry Potter. So the topic of this post of yours, about the man who reviews books, and the book in question, are both new to me.

    I read your post, then read his review, and than his apology post.

    The very points he made in his apology post, (before even seeing it) while reading the review post, I saw those same two sentences as having a negative tone. They weren't simply critical remarks, they were rude remarks.

    Hate is as strong as harsh a word as I can think of. It's one thing to hate sin, and to state such, of which that isn't wrong. It's one thing to state "I hate that because of original sin, our lives became full of conflict and suffering". In such cases, that is appropriate usage of the word hate, both in print, and feeling.

    However, in this case, in regards to Voskamp's writing style, which Mr. Challies gave an example of, while it may not be a style that appeals to all, it's certainly not so bad, that is warrants being hated, or being cited as being hated. The word dislike, would have not only been sufficient, but appropriate. It's still critical, without being rude. And being rude, and being harsh, are not always one in the same.

    Telling someone the Christian truth, boldly, particularly if it comes to sinful behavior one is willfully engaging in arrogantly, especially if they claim to be God's, may come across as harsh to the one being chastized, and rightly so, if they have been openly prideful in their sin, and such bold, stern, affirmation of God's view on sin, (specifically whatever which sin or sins they are engaging in) may, and hopefully, lead them to repentance.

    Even though I didn't read her book, if her book is the way he says it is, (and he read it) then the points he brings up, that he disagrees with, based on what I know of God, both through His word, and my walk with Him, I am in agreement with the concerns, and flaws Mr. Challies pointed out.

    It was just those two phrases he himself referenced in his apology, that he could have, and really should have, (of which he recognized) written better.

    The one about her writing style being hated.

    And this one:
    "What does she *not*(i'm asterisking to point out that he emphasized it as he did, with italics, of which I don't have the option to use in this commenting format) understand about the gospel that her ecstasies have to happen in a place dedicated to a false gospel of salvation by grace plus works rather than a gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone?"

    The way he phrased that, (particularly with the italicizing the word not) wasn't just righteously critical, it was very much condescening, it was indeed unjustly rude. Some people have trouble reading tones conveyed in words, that when spoken, are clearly indicated. Those some people don't see how what someone writes is condescending, insulting, rude, etc. In addition, on the flip side, some wrongly discern what is written, perceiving it as being negative, when in fact it isn't. Some people aren't as sensitive, they have a tougher skin, thus even when it comes to negative tones in print, that are rude, they are able to not be ill affected. But that doesn't mean those of us, such as myself, who are sensitive, need to toughen up and just not feel hurt when we are spoken to with a tone that is condescending, insulting, rude, insensitive. Even if a person didn't mean to be that way, sometimes, whether in print, or through speech, we err in our choice of words. We're human. I've done it......

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    1. Sorry, Anon, but I'm afraid I don't agree with your definition of hatred (if I were feeling flippant I'd say I hated it). Words do not have just one blessed, exclusive meaning, and the context in which words are used can change their force, while the meanings themselves change over time and in different cultural contexts. When I say "I hate things being done without enough thought put into them" I'm not saying "things being done without enough thought put into them are the worst things that can possibly be done, and the people who do them are incompetent and I will never talk with them again". All I'm saying is that I dislike things being done that way, and that I'm putting emphasis on it as an aid to communication (like people who use "like", "totally" or swear words to emphasise what they say). I believe it will be understood that way by my friends and the general culture I am in. It may not be understood that way by you.

      Part of the issue of course is that some of the connotations involved in my use of "hate" will be communicated to people via non-verbal means when I speak to them directly. If they are in writing it is much more likely that people will not take them the way I meant them. But that highlights the danger of relying solely on the written word for communication rather than the need to only use words in one very narrowly defined context.

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  5. There is a time for harshness, and a time to be delicate, and there are those to whom we must discern, whether it is time for them to be told something boldly, in a way that while the truth, and not phrased rudely, will still come off harsh to them, though it is given in love. Or, whether it is a time for the person to be addressed with delicateness, even when they are being critiqued, such as disciplining a child who did wrong, but didn't know they were doing wrong. Being delicate with them, in disciplining them, will not only spare them being hurt, it will show them that even when you're wrong, it doesn't always means you meant to be, and that that's understood, and thus you aren't chastised in a shaming, condemning way, which would be unjust.

    The review was not a time to be so harsh as to come across as one condemning a willful sinner. It wasn't a sinner and their sin being reviewed, it was a book, a written expression of another human being's personal journey, their life, and their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and convictions, told in part, not whole. There is likely much she didn't write about herself.

    Mr. Challies, as with everyone else, doesn't fully know the author. He doesn't know all her thoughts about God, or toward God. He doesn't fully know her heart, and just how exactly she both perceives God in her heart, and the depth of her feelings toward God.

    Furthermore, and in conclusion, whether saved or not, while there is time and we are alive, we have the ability to learn, to mature. Many of us who've been alive for some time, know there are many things we once thought, that we came to learn weren't exactly as we had once thought. There are beliefs we once held, that we left go of, and embraced something different, whether new, or old. Sometimes we were in the wrong, and thankfully, came into the right. For the beliefs Mrs. Voskamp holds that are wrong, it's possible she is just misinformed, and/or immature, and as such, has the ability to be enlightened, and may she be open to receive all the enlightment she needs, as her own invidiual, in her own personal walk with The Lord.

    J.L.

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    1. Mr Challies wasn't criticizing the author, he was criticizing her published book. When you chronicle a "personal journey," including "thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and convictions," it's a journal. When you publish it, it's a book. Challies was not taking issue with "how exactly she perceives God in her heart," but with how she writes about God in her book. We have more than a right to do that, we have a responsibility.

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  6. Ann Voscamp had a message in her book: living a life of gratitude, the ultimate expression of gratitude being directed towards Jesus Christ. She wasn't writing a systemic theology book.

    What is blatantly missing in this whole dialogue is something that Tim Challies obviously understood: God is sovereignly in charge of what happens in His children's lives and has a way of chastening them that, if one is listening to the Spirit, will gently guide them to becoming ever more Christ-like. For Tim to quickly post that retraction piece indicates that the Lord was working something out with Him about his heart and actions. Bravo to him for immediately taking action, humbling himself, and showing us all how to behave with the grace we were shown.

    It's not "unity at all costs." It's loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and being meek & merciful. If it's not heresy, there is no biblical authority to have conflict over it.

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    1. "God is sovereignly in charge of what happens in His children's lives and has a way of chastening them"

      Yes, and one of the ways God does that is to have godly people challenge false doctrine. This is especially important when that doctrine has been *published* and is being circulated throughout the church.

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  7. I'm a little late to this party, but thanks so much for this article. Like a lot of Christian women I've had people recommend Voskamp's book, and while I politely refused and was open about my reasons, it would have really helped at the time if some evangelicals had publicly denounced the book's doctrine. I was relieved when Challies posted something about it (although I thought he was a little too soft on it even the first time), and deflated when he moderated his criticism. As evidenced by some of the comments above, a lot of women vigorously defend Voskamp's book without understanding why it is "dangerous," so we need people to speak plainly about the issues. I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that she's a woman, and Challies was, if not charmed, reluctant to be as direct as he would have been with a man.

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    1. Hi Boo,

      Thanks for your comment and very well said. I think you might have a good point RE Challies tempering his criticism into something less direct than he might have done if the recipient were a man.

      I enjoyed Phil Johnson's sermon at the 2017 Shepherds' Conference, regarding the necessity of "bare knuckle polemics a la Apostle Paul". He did moderate his thought by saying if that is ALL one does it is not a Godly trait. However to never do it is worse, because it allows evil into the church.

      I agree too many women defend books like's Voskamp's, signaling a drastic dearth of discernment. This is also dangerous, because women become mothers and raise children...who end up with the same lack of discernment, if the fathers aren't careful. I wonder where are the husbands and brothers and fathers of these women are who defend gnostic and heretical books...

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    2. I listened to that message too. I'm a long-time fan of Phil Johnson's "bare knuckle polemics!" Like the Apostle Paul, he has a gift for being direct, graciously.

      As for the dearth of discernment, we often think about how this affects men in the pulpit, but I think there is a modern trend for women, even in some sound churches, to substitute good teaching for inspirational blather which is often just upcycled Gnosticism.

      As you say, women are the teachers of children, so it's critically important for us to know what's true and what isn't, and to know how to discern the difference. We all need reminding that sound doctrine is for us too - so keep up the good work with your blog!

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