Pop Christianity and the Gift of Disillusionment
Is all cynicism unhealthy, though? Could there be a form of cynicism that is actually beneficial, perhaps even biblical?
Cynicism has reached epidemic status within the church, but it is not the only illness out there. Many of these other ailments plaguing the church are the very means by which cynics become cynical. The term pop Christianity appears from time to time, usually to refer to the oversimplified theology and the trite sentimentality that is so rife throughout the Western church. This is a populist version of Christianity that is "purged of complexities, nuance, and darkness" and lacking "poetry and emotional breadth." Many illnesses can be identified under the rubric of pop Christianity, to which cynicism has become a common response.
But fighting sickness with sickness will just promote mass contagion. The church is in need of corrective voices, but cynical voices will hurt more than help. Are there alternative responses to pop Christianity that can promote healing in the church? Can we be discerning Christians without becoming full-blown cynics? Is there a way to critique and challenge the church more out of love than out of disgust?
As long as pop Christianity is nurtured in the church, then Christians will be inadvertent accomplices in spreading the spiritual sickness of cynicism in our pews (and even beyond into the wider culture). But if we could prevent the disenfranchised masses from plunging into cynicism and actively seek the rehabilitation of those already diagnosed as cynics, then we would secure an army of voices within our own ranks that can provide brilliant insights which, if tempered with love, could possibly lead to the reformation and renewal which the Western church so desperately needs.
This is because Christians who have been disillusioned are among the most discerning people in the church. Disillusionment is illumination. Those moments of painful discovery are revelatory experiences from which others could benefit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, actually hailed disillusionment with the church as a divine gift. The crushing of unrealistic dreams about God's people (as well as ourselves) is an act of God's grace:
Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and with ourselves …. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.
This great theologian passionately calls us to disillusionment. But for the disillusionment to bear its fruit, we have to embrace it without collapsing into cynicism. When we experience hurtful illumination and resist turning cynical, we may realize that we have been entrusted with a tremendous gift that can be used for the edification of the church. If we can manage to find healing and regain our footing a bit after the rug has been ripped out from beneath us, then we may be used by God to free others from faulty ideas about our faith. Redeemed cynics have much to offer.