7.6.09

Truth be Told


A small group study is filtering through the nation - maybe - and this time it takes longer than forty days.

(Sorry. I know it's passé, but I can't resist a good Purpose-Driven Life Joke.)

This time it's Focus on the Family spearheading "The Truth Project," a video series $2 million and several years in the making. A 12-episode set focusing on apologetics, they're taught/ narrated by Dr. Del Tackett, president of the Focus on the Family Institute and Senior Vice President of Focus on the Family. The project was actually released in 2006; I'm not sure why it's taken this long to hit the West Coast, although I have my theories. More on that later.

No matter your feelings on Focus, the series is solid and surprisingly heady. Every lesson covers a different topic, ranging from science to anthropology, art and the meaning of truth. Even my husband, with his handful of science degrees, has found little to argue over as we've watched. This may change, but so far we've found it to be intellectually sound.

Each lesson is set up as a sort of classroom lecture given by "Dr. Del", with video interjections by theologians R.C. Sproul and Ravi Zacharias. One of the features I'm not wild about is when they interview people on the street. Okay, sure, it's interesting to get an idea of what the average world citizen defines as evil, but making sure they're not belittled causes the filmmaker to walk a fine line. It doesn't help that most of the subjects aren't particularly educated. There are moments when it begins to feel superior, although when they talk to the Unitarian Universalist who's clearly crackers, I don't mind at all. Del Tackett also projects a certain smugness from time to time; the amazing thing is that the overall quality of the material manages to surpass all of those factors.

Part of the ammunition behind the project's presentation is the results of the Barna Group's most recent survey reporting that only 19% of "born-again" Christians ("...those who said they have made a personal to commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today and that they are certain that they will go to Heaven after they die only because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior") hold a biblical worldview.

What does that mean? It means 19% believes in the existence of absolute moral truth, accuracy of the Bible, reality of Satan, the inability of a person to enter heaven through works, Jesus’ sinless life, and God's position as an omnipotent creator and current ruler of the universe. Pretty basic stuff.

Problem is, the results of the survey among those self-professed "born-again" Christians hasn't changed much since 1995, when the number was 18%.

Either way, those results are problematic. Are people not believing, or are the churches not teaching? As a nation, America has struggled against a trend of anti-intellectualism for years. David Anderegg profiles that trend in his book, Nerds: Who They Are and Why America Needs More of Them. We are a culture (largely born out of Anglo-Saxon principles) who values action over thought. The Christian culture has taken that concept and one-upped it, valuing emotion over mind.

Emo-worship anyone? The message has become, "You either have faith or you don't. If you have to understand it intellectually, you suck." Thinking is worldly. Doubting is a gateway drug to hard-core stuff like agnosticism. Christians have become afraid to ask the tough questions.

That mindset is deeply dangerous. In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller writes:

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic.”

In light of the Barna research, stupid skeptics are probably just as worrisome.

What The Truth Project does so well is to present really great, well-researched information. What I don't get is their distribution system.

Can you go to the website, pay the "suggested donation," and receive the set of DVDs in the mail? No.

If you want to start a group, you have to go to a training session. The cost of attending the training session, anywhere from $99-$149, includes a set of the DVDs. Training sessions are offered in 10 of the 50 states. The way our church is set up, you may borrow a set of the DVDs if a member of your study has already been through the series. You can also go to the website and find groups in your city. My hometown of Eugene has one open group.

The way they're protecting this series, you'd think they were revealing information researched by Dan Brown (because no one knows good scholarship like Dan Brown).

None of this makes any sense to me. Is the "trained" member of the group shepherding everyone else through the material? Is the truth so incendiary that you have to be monitored when it's revealed to you?

What's sad is that the lessons on the DVDs are so logically presented that they speak for themselves. And let's be realistic. If 81% of Christians have a hazy version of biblical truth, then why the heck would anyone want to make them jump through hoops to correct it? Why aren't Focus staffers standing on Colorado street corners with order forms and invitations to small groups?

Sure, there are dozens of other teaching materials covering biblical worldviews. The Bible comes to mind. But my guess is that if someone disagrees with any of the Barna definition worldview statement, the Bible is going unread or incorrectly interpreted. For that matter, copies of The Reason for God, Mere Christianity, and the scores of other valuable volumes are remaining untouched as well.

Is there a solution to this? Would a flood of letters change Focus's thoughts? Even if it did, the responsibility of reaching that 81% rests with the 19%. It is our responsibility to discern good theology from bad, be able to articulate that difference to those in and out of our social spheres, and do so with love and humility.

How blessed we are to worship a God who's so big, so smart, and so patient, that he can withstand our questions and fears. Who loves us no matter what, even if we're Unitarian Universalists.

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. (Edited for typos)
    Nice description. I had vaguely heard of this, but thanks to your description, I am intrigued.

    I always hold Focus at arm's length, because I see half their ministry being very good, and half being something that makes me cringe. Looks like this might be one of the good ones.

    That said, is there any explanation on Focus's website for their methods regarding this study? Has anyone tried to call them and ask?

    Perhaps Focus believes that if anyone can get hold of it, then the press will do so, and will proceed to rake every word over the coals, and to take some things out of context. Just a thought.

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  3. This is the best explanation I found (after some digging) in their FAQ section:

    "We frequently emphasize that every Truth Project facilitator should spend at least two months praying about and for each group before beginning the series, and then pray for every participant by name on a daily basis to help fuel the metamorphic process that we hope God will bring about in these folks’ hearts.

    Simply put, if a person is watching these DVDs outside the context of a group led by someone who has committed to pray for them in this fashion, they are probably missing the supportive “cocoon” which we believe is absolutely crucial for the ultimate success of this endeavor. And in doing so, they’re only seeing (and experiencing) a fraction of the big picture. The video content of The Truth Project makes up perhaps a third of the whole package; the other two thirds come from the context in which it is experienced."

    While well-intentioned, this still feels problematic to me. The series spends a lot of time talking about putting our worldview "in the box." And yet, they're putting a very specific box around the circumstances in which someone's heart can be changed. Our God is a big God. He is a powerful God. Does praying for something for a longer period of time make him hear it better, or act on it more favorably?

    While I'm all about the small group study and everyone praying for each other, I'd be horrified if there are leaders turning down potential group members because they don't have time to log in the prayer hours for them before the start of study.

    Maybe they could get around that if they prayed AND fasted. The whole thing smacks of a dangerous legalism.

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  4. I gotta be honest, I didn't read this whole post. But the use of the word "crackers" as a descriptor had me at hello, or what have you. Show me the money.

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  5. Maybe I'm misapprehending the purpose of this DVD series, but judging by the medium itself, in addition to what I saw on the website, I would ask if the whole project isn't just as much an exercise in anti-intellectualism as is the sort of complacency the series is designed to combat...

    It is one thing to engage a text critically. Sitting back and passively listening to some guy on a DVD give answers to specialized questions (and the website definitely reveals how carefully formed -- and biased -- those questions are) is entirely different. I understand that this is an oversimplification of the process, and that the purpose of presenting this in a group is so that people can discuss it and engage it... But it seems highly unlikely that such a group setting would honestly accept conclusions (at more than a superficial level) that ran counter to the DVD material.

    Perhaps a better intellectual exercise would be to form a study group around another religion's apologetic material, with the intent of examining truth claims in general.

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