The Cute Syndrome

By Joe R. Price

Paul H. Dunn, former member of the “Presidency of the First Quorum of Seventy” in the LDS Church now holding emeritus status as a general authority, has been the focus of a controversy within the Mormon Church for the past couple of years. It seems that Dunn, one of the most popular LDS lecturers and writers, has been telling exaggerated (if not fabricated) personal stories about his heroism in the Korean War and his experiences as a professional baseball player. The verdict is still out on how much or for how long the LDS Church leaders knew about the deceptive stories of Dunn. Did they let him continue because he was “in demand”?

A headline about this matter in the Salt Lake Tribune caught my attention: “Speaker Says LDS Teachings Suffer From ‘Cute’ Syndrome” (Aug. 10, 1991). Attorney Eric C. Olson (himself a Mormon) presented a paper at the 13th annual Sunstone Symposium in which he suggested that Dunn’s stories are representative of a Church Education System that “may value entertainment and reassurance over honesty, insight and accuracy.” He went on to say, “From the CES (Church Education System, jrp) perspective, no matter how real or how true a principle or, circumstance may be, it is of negligible instructional value, if it does not excite the student or fit the correlated preconception.” The article further explained, “Such a posture, he warned, can lead to a ‘vacuum of relativity’ where a principle appears to be truth only if it bears the right stamp, is spoken by the right person or serves the right purpose. ‘We start wrapping the truth in little finer packages until it is no longer truth,’ Mr. Olson said.”

Mr. Olson’s observations are, quite astute, and are applicable for New Testament Christians. Have we become a people who are interested in truth only when it entertains I am reminded of Romans 3:9-19, where the apostle Paul proposed to lay “to the charge both of Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin.” Being led by the Spirit of God (Jn. 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:10-13; 2 Tim. 3:16), he used no less than six Scriptures from the law to prove the accuracy of his teaching! I wonder if Paul could get published using that many Scriptures today, especially since he was writing to the “average Christian” (Rom. 1:7). Is truth only appeal or excites us because of the way it is presented (“packaged”) by the teacher, preacher, etc.? I am afraid this is too often the case.

For instance, upon what basis do we conclude that brother so and so preached “a great sermon”? His command of the English language? His use of metaphors, similes and anecdotes? His style and ability to enrapture an audience or “keep it in stitches”? Or, is it the clear, precise message of truth which he presents (2 Tim. 4:1-5)? Please do not misunderstand. A man who masters the ability to speak publicly is a wonderful asset to the kingdom, if he uses that ability to direct attention to the word of God and away from himself. Did you answer the question? Before you do, consider the apostle Paul, who of himself said, “But though I be rude in speech, yet am I not in knowledge” (2 Cor. 11: 6). He did not seek to please men with his preaching, but God (Gal. 1:10-12; 1 Thess. 2:3-6). He did not use flattery (1 Thess. 2:5), human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:14) or philosophy (Col. 2:8) to present truth, but a “thus saith the Lord” (Col. 3:17; 1 Thess. 2:13). Was Paul a great preacher, with great lessons? By most people’s standards, probably not. After all, he was threatened, stoned and imprisoned for his preaching (cf. Acts 9.22-24,29; 13:44-51; 14:19; 16:19-24). That is not how the world treats its “great” preachers! Maybe Paul should have wrapped his message in a “finer package!”

The Packaging or the Power of the Gospel?

Do we still trust the power of the gospel to save our souls (Rom. 1:16)? When we must have the truth of the gospel packaged in the skillfulness of men before we approve of it, we have lost our faith in the power of the gospel and built our faith upon the abilities of men. Consider a few of the ways our faith can be placed in the packaging of the truth rather than in the truth itself.

1. The appeal of intellectualism. We have nothing against obtaining a college education. To broaden one’s knowledge and appreciation of the various disciplines of learning can be of great benefit. Indeed, elders, preachers and teachers can benefit from whatever higher education they have been fortunate enough to obtain. Yet, when we are only interested in what a gospel preacher or teacher has to say if he holds a B.A., M.A. or Ph.D, we are on dangerous ground (1 Cor. 1:26-2:4).

We are stressing the wrong thing when we encourage people to hear brother so and so preach because of his intellectual attainments. When we are only interested in an “educated” man preaching for us (regardless of his knowledge of and love for the truth), is our prime objective gospel preaching? What of the man’s message? It seems as if the message of God’s word is sometimes taken for granted as we marvel over the educational achievements of the man teaching it. Have we forgotten that the power of the gospel is found in the message which is preached and not in its messenger (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17-25)? Are we interested in hearing a man preach and teach who, by the world’s standards, is unknowledgeable and unlearned? Or, do we “hold out” for the truly educated preacher? I fear we would not have desired the preaching of Peter and John, “unlearned and ignorant” as they were (Acts 4:13)! We must avoid “packaging” the word of God in the wrapping of man’s intellect before we are interested in opening it!

2. The pop psychology PMA approach to gospel preaching. It is a sign of the times. People want to feel good about themselves. They want reassurance that they are “o.k.” More and more brethren want the elders, preachers and teachers to help them define and emphasize this good feeling. Well, I like to feel good about myself, don’t you? And, the Bible teaches that the Christian ought to be the happiest person on this planet (Phil. 4:4-8,10-13; Eph. 1:3; Matt. 5:3-12). However, this is not what we are talking about.

There seems to be an affection on the part of some to practice “pop psychology” from the pulpit and with the pen. The positive mental attitude approach to living espoused by Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller and others emphasizes man’s internal power to overcome depression, guilt and sin. Man fills his own needs, and becomes his own remedy for life’s problems. Such an approach to Christianity puts one’s faith in self rather than in Christ. It sees man as having the answers within himself to overcome the guilt of sin (cf. Jer. 10:23; Prov. 14:12). This is deceptive “packaging” which will leave a person’s soul lost in sin!

3. Emphasize the positive, eliminate the negative.” This approach teaching and teaching has influenced the religion of men for decades (if not centuries). Eventually, it becomes a call to move away from “book, chapter and verse” preaching to emphasize oratory and writing skills. Knowledge of the word of God suffers from such a concept, and so do God’s people (cf. Hos. 4:1-6). While this objective is denied (I certainly hope it is!), the effect remains, nonetheless.

The writing guidelines of one journal suggest that writers use a minimum of Scriptures. At the same time, teachers of the gospel should be at their “creative best,” embellishing their articles with various literary techniques:

Second, we hope you will write for the audience we are trying to reach. We hope to reach the “average Christian.” Each article is thus to be short and limited to one major point. Do not tell us all you know, but what you know most surely. Generally speaking, two or three passages should provide a sufficient base for such articles – perhaps even one. . .

Obviously, what we are after is a piece of journalistic writing. The thrust of the article should be practical, speaking to the real needs of people. The style of the writing should be popular. We urge you to be your creative best: think of interest-catching leads, sharp illustrations, and if appropriate, and if possible, sprinkle in a little wit (Assignment letter, Christianity Magazine, undated).

Such guidelines place more importance upon the “packaging” of the product than upon the truth being presented.

Avoiding The “Cute” Syndrome

Of course, we should do our best when preaching, teaching or writing the truth of God. We are thankful for talented writers, teachers and preachers who can effectively communicate God’s word. As God’s fellow-worker (1 Cor. 3:5-9), the preacher must do the best he can to present truth. As hearers of that word, we must demand that the truth be presented, and then fully obey it. The people of Ezekiel’s day expressed a desire to hear the word of the Lord. Some even viewed Ezekiel as a “great preacher.” But they refused to obey the word of God which he preached (Ezek. 33:30-32). However, because Ezekiel’s message would come to pass (and not because he thrilled his audience), there could be no denying that God’s prophet had proclaimed God’s word to them (v. 33). Ezekiel, Paul, or any other preacher of God’s word could only be regarded as “great” (effective) when their message was the truth of God. Effective preaching and teaching is not determined by the teacher’s flowery language, perfect prose or journalistic technique. It is defined by teaching everything which is profitable for the salvation of men, “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:20, 27; 1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 4:2).

The churches of men have long since given in to the temptation of making their message “cute.” Entertainment, excitement and reassurance is the order of the day. Mr. Olson’s assessment of the LDS Church’s educational program is an example of what can happen when one becomes more interested in impressing an audience than in accurately presenting the word of God. The truth suffers and souls are endangered as a result. We must not become victims of such devices.

Do not be deceived by the “packaging” which men often call the word of God. We must “preach the word!” The package may at times be crude, but the product must always be genuine (2 Tim. 3:16-4:5). Beware of the “cute syndrome!”

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 21, pp. 651-653
November 7, 1991