Cynicism in the Church

Edited by Dave, circa 2011-??A friend of mine recently pointed out this book: Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint by Andrew Byers (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011).  As you can probably tell from the quotes I post here on the blog, I’m a cynic to some extent, especially when it comes to the topic of the worldliness so prevalent in many churches.  So I was looking forward to reading this book – and here’s my brief review.  In case you were wondering, Byers defines cynicism like this: it is “an embittered disposition of distrust born out of painful disillusionment” (p. 9). 

The book has two main parts.  In the first part, Byers discusses a few things in the broader evangelical culture that make us cynical.  These include idealism (i.e. americanized views of self and God), religiosity (i.e. spiritual performance, legalism, and antinomianism), experientialism (i.e. mountain top emotional experiences), anti-intellectualism (i.e. mindless Christianity), and cultural irrelevance (i.e. dinosaur churches).  I agree with many of these reasons why some people are cynical; many of these trends in American evangelicalism can certainly lead to cynicism.  I do think this first section was helpful, but he really only scratched the surface of these topics (which could lead some readers to say – with cynicism – “he doesn’t quite get it!”).

The second part is more constructive.  In it, Byers discusses biblical alternatives to cynicism.  Basically, he spends around 100 pages explaining how the prophets, wisdom literature, biblical laments, Christ, and the apostles lead us out of cynicism and give us proper biblical responses to the mess in the church.  The prophet calls out errors and sins but does so with love.  The wise sage is truthful but humble.  The laments in scripture end in worship and joy.  Jesus was a prophet, sage, and lamenter but not a cynic.  And Paul taught the ‘already-not-yet’ paradigm (we are already save but not yet in the new creation, so we cannot expect perfection here and now).  I appreciated this section because Byers did point the reader to scripture, but I believe it could have been shortened up a bit.  I’m guessing the cynics who read this probably know the basics that Byers lays out.  Perhaps he could have done more “application” in this section, giving some more concrete examples of fighting cynicism.  I came away from this section in agreement, but wanting more depth in struggling against cynicism. 

One more note: since Byers did mention several things about the church that make a person cynical, I expected him to return to that topic later on.  For example, I thought he would say, “yes, the church today is largely anti-intellectual,” but then destroy cynicism by showing many areas where churches are not anti-intellectual.  He might have killed cynicism by giving details of churches that work hard to “reach out” without “selling out.”  In a word, I wish he would have not just shown the dark spots of the church, but the bright spots as well.  One thing that has killed cynicism in me is to interact with Christians from different “tribes and tongues” and have them tell me how their church is learning sound doctrine, growing in godliness, and active in solid missionary endeavors. 

Overall, I do recommend this book if you struggle with cynicism and I’m thankful Byers took the time and energy to write and publish it.  It is clear, well written, and biblical; it should be a help for many.  If you’re an older and well-taught/read Christian, it might be too elementary for you, but if you’re younger and still growing/learning, it’ll be right up your alley.  The ideal reader of this book is a serious 20-something Christian who is sick of the silliness in the church and needs help avoiding cynicism and anger. 

After reading Byers’ book, I put this one in my cart for later: Dick Keyes, Seeing Through Cynicism

shane lems

sunnyside wa