TGC Q&A: How Do I Challenge Buffet-Style Christianity?

Glen Scrivener: So Sam, in 2 Timothy 4, Paul talks about people gathering to themselves any number of teachers who will tell them what their itching ears long to hear. And these days, we’ve got earbuds to gather to ourselves any number of teachers from any number of podcasts, and audio books, and YouTube videos. And people are listening to kind of an la carte, buffet-style spirituality. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of the other. And a little bit of you if, you know, they might subscribe to your podcast as well. But how should we think about that, when the average Christian has so many different spiritual influences?

Sam Chan: It just reflects the culture and the age of our times, where choice is very important. I remember when I went to parenting courses they said you’ve got to give your kids choices. Choice of everything. Do you want the red shirt or the white shirt? Do you want the breakfast cereal or the peanut butter on toast? And apparently choice was the key to happiness. Of course, people are reacting against that now. We’ve had movements like the “The Paradox of Choice,” I think Barry Schwartz, and how that actually makes us more stressed, more grumpy, and more unhappy. But the whole idea that choice trumps everything. And you’ve only got to come to the USA to realize, I just wanted milk, but there’s like 40 versions of milk, because they think that will make you happier.

And then when you go to a restaurant, you think “I’m going to test it on this.” Right? In America, the customer is always right. And no matter what you choose, they give it to you. So you may say, “I want the pastrami sandwich, but instead of pastrami, give me egg, and instead of bread, give me a cabbage leaf.” And they will say, “Sure, no problem.” You think, “My goodness. My choices trump basic ontology, because whatever you’re giving me now is not a pastrami sandwich.

And this is the movement, and Al Mohler describes it perfectly. At this moment, preference has trumped ontology. Autonomy has trumped truth. So it’s truth is what I would prefer. And I think this buffet-style Christianity reflects that. I will pick and choose the bits I want. Instead of pastrami I’ll have turkey. Instead of bread I’ll have the cabbage leaf. And that only works if there is no real God. But if there is a loving personal God, that cannot possibly work.

And I say to people, I’ve been married to my wife, Stephanie, for 22 years. Her name’s Stephanie. She’s Asian-Australian. She was born in Australia and she studied at the University of Sydney. You would say to me, “You know Stephanie.” But if I say, “My wife Stephanie, her name is Eric. She was born in Norway, and she likes to juggle fish, and she went to the University of Helsinki,” you’ll say, “I don’t think you know Stephanie,” because I have the facts wrong. I can’t pick and choose facts. And really, because God is real, because God is loving, and because he is personal, the facts have to matter.

Glen Scrivener: So buffet-style works at the restaurant. It doesn’t work at the pharmacy. You know? “Which pills do you want?” “I like purple. Can I have purple?” “No. That could kill you.”

Sam Chan: Yeah. It doesn’t work with a person either. Like that’s me saying to my wife, “I love your nose, but I don’t like your ears.” You know. “I love your sense of humor, but I don’t like it when you tell me what to wear.” No, you don’t get to pick and choose the bits of a person.

Glen Scrivener: So what do we do though? Because there are Christians… I listen to a whole bunch of different podcasts. And I don’t agree with all the podcasts that I listen to. I listen to non-Christian. I listen to a whole bunch of different world views. And we’re all doing that. Is the answer to say, “No. You’ve got to delete that app from your phone?” Or, what’s the answer to that?

Sam Chan: Well, it all comes down to our epistemology. Are we allowed to use a big word like that here? This is TGC. They want a big word. Right? So whether we, well, it all comes to a critical realist epistemology, where there is an absolute truth. There is a real loving personal God. But we come to know him from our multiple different perspectives. And sometimes more perspectives help us get closer to the true God. So it’s not a bad thing to have multiple perspectives, as long as we keep using the Bible as our reference point, to say, “Okay. Are we getting closer to the Bible, or are we moving away from the Bible here?”

Glen Scrivener: And I guess that’s what we do with kids. Right? There’s one way of parenting that just says, “Okay. My child will never watch X, Y and Z.” And at certain ages, and with certain X, Ys and Zs, that’s perfectly right. But at some stage you might want to sit down with your child and watch X and Y and Z with them, and talk through with them, “Okay. So what is that preaching to you? And what is the vision of the good that is being proclaimed by X, Y and Z? And let’s talk this through together, and see what Jesus might say into the situation.”

Sam Chan: Yeah. And if we do want buffet-style, la carte, pick and choose Christianity, maybe let’s expand our horizons and see what the Africans are saying. Let’s see what the Latin Americans are saying. Let’s see what the Asians are saying. Because I love to point out to my skeptical friends, “Do you realize the fastest growing religion in the world right now is Christianity?” Every day millions and millions and millions of people are choosing to love, follow, and worship Jesus, in Africa, in southeast Asia, in Latin America. So they’re seeing something in Jesus that we in the West right now are missing. So we make fun of those tourists who stay in their tourist buses and only eat their local food. And they go back in their buses and talk their own language to each other. They have never left their bubble. But that’s us in the West right now. Whatever our problems with Jesus and the Bible, they’re Western problems. Because the rest of the world is finding a freedom, a shalom, a peace in Jesus that we’re missing out on in the West.

Glen Scrivener: Right. So we need that robust epistemology. We need that robust sense of the Bible is true and Jesus is Lord. But with that, maybe we need to cast the net a little bit wider actually within Christian circles, and enjoy some of that diversity, and maybe we’ll learn something.

Sam Chan: That’s right. An epistemic humility…there, I’ve used that word again…in a community of, not just a community of interpreters, but an international community of interpreters.

Glen Scrivener: Man. This man is a double doctor. Do you know that? Did people know that?

Sam Chan: Well, I hide it with my Australian accent. I’m sure you are hiding your brilliance with your Australian accent as well.

Glen Scrivener: So more epistemic humility. And yeah, let’s continue to think Jesus is Lord, the Bible is true. And let’s filter everything we listen to through those lenses.

Sam Chan: Definitely.

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