You can really tell a lot about a person or group when things go pear-shaped. How they go about solving problems–first by identifying the problem and then figuring out its source–reveals a great deal about how their minds work. For dysfunctional people and groups, that first step proves to be an insurmountable task. Once the blame settles on the wrong shoulders, it’s almost impossible to pull back to really solve the problem. Today, let me show you how to tell when blame has been wrongly assigned.
(All quotes come from the respective sources; they are not scare quotes. I’ve learned my lesson with Christians.)
A Kitchen Nightmare.
Kitchen Nightmares (KN) ran from 2007-2014. (An earlier version set in the United Kingdom ran from 2004-2007, mostly.) Gordon Ramsay headlined the series. As an extremely competent and successful chef and restaurant owner, he should know a few things about how to run a successful place.
And wow, I love this show. In each episode, Gordon Ramsay visits a failing restaurant to find out why it’s about to close. He fixes the problems he sees, and then the show reveals the restaurant doing much better (usually) at least in the immediate future (if not for the long haul).
In one show I watched, though, I realized that both Ramsay and the restaurant’s owner had made a big mistake in blaming the wrong person for her restaurant’s imminent failure.
The nightmarish restaurant this time comes to us from Season 6, episode 14: “Prohibition Grille.” It hits all the KN tropes in a satisfying way: a delusional restaurant owner, some competent staff and one glaringly incompetent one, and spine-twisting examples of ghastly food and kitchen management that Gordon Ramsay will, of course, pitch colorful fits about and eventually help fix.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Rishi Brown owns this particular kitchen nightmare. She turns out to be a complete airhead with no head whatsoever for business–or even for what tastes good. When Gordon Ramsay asks how she came to own a large restaurant when she’s barely worked at all in the food industry, she giggles and relates a well-polished story about making a spur-of-the-moment decision after a bout of serious day drinking (she thinks that her presentation of an impulsive, girlish, free-spirited persona will impress him, but it distinctly has the opposite effect).
Rishi rates her restaurant’s food a 10 out of 10, but it’s easy to see that she has no idea what’s going on. The food is horrifying even to look at.
Cherchez le chef cuisinier.
Rishi’s chef, Rocky, quickly emerges as the villain in the episode. He’s lazy, unmotivated, and sullen. Worse, he proves happy to serve old and rotted food if it means doing less work. I’m sure Ramsay and his show writers thought he’d be a very easy pick for the villain of the show’s narrative.
Indeed, for this episode, that narrative might have gone like so: “An opportunistic chef takes advantage of the naive, sweet, inexperienced restaurant owner. Remove the chef, and suddenly the restaurant will do well again. Hooray Team Ramsay!”
While the narrative took shape, I began noticing signs of serious attention-seeking in Rishi. It wasn’t just her insisting on belly-dancing in the restaurant, either! When Ramsay floated the idea of Rocky being the real problem in the place, she leaped on that idea. Suddenly, she began complaining about the chef she’d previously praised to the skies. Under the sunshine of Ramsay’s approval, she blossomed like a flower. She immediately accepted the narrative shaping up in the episode. Maybe she sought to save face, or perhaps she needed to feel like she wasn’t doing everything wrong. It hardly matters.
It might have sounded dramatic, but it was still a false narrative.
And we see the same exact thing going on in Christianity.
A Dramatic–if False–Narrative.
Our commenter Jon Morgan found almost the same thing happening in Christian-Land. I’d been planning to bring in the SBC right here–or Catholicism, or a host of other Christian groups doing exactly the same thing. Really, creating and peddling exactly these sorts of narratives has become a late-stage cottage industry for this declining religion.
But this is funnier than any of those. So we went this direction.
Rather dramatically titled “Why Western Christianity has a death wish,” the opinion piece offers up its writer’s guesses about What The Big Problem Is Here.1 When dysfunctional people offer up these sweeping guesses, strap in because whatever comes next gon’ be gud. And Tim Stanley’s cri de coeur does not disappoint.
Tim Stanley is, he tells us in the piece, a Catholic. In fact, he is very likely this guy, a fairly recent convert to Catholicism and one of those tiresome zomg-y’all-I-totally-used-to-be-an-atheist types. He explicitly links conservative politics with religious faith, buying fully as well into his religion’s culture-war mentality. And he knows exactly why Christianity is facing steep declines.
The Big Problem Here, he tells us, is that way too many Christian leaders are scared to death to be seen as judgmental and condemnatory. Consequently, they’re trying to be pals instead of Designated Adults and salespeople.
Oh the Horror!
First, Tim Stanley paints a picture that he clearly thinks needs to evoke our deepest scorn and derision. The picture centers on Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in San Francisco. Going to their site, I saw an immediate, front-forward statement of LGBT inclusion.
Tim Stanley runs through Grace Cathedral’s sins: A man dressed as a nun (I think he means the guy in the rainbow scarf, above). Yoga classes. An emphasis on avoiding judgmentalism. Full acceptance of the science around climate change. Multi-faith services.
So far so good?
GASP! OH THE HORROR! IT’S A (SHUDDER) LIBERAL CHURCH!!
A Tree in Need of New Sap.
See, Stanley couldn’t help noticing a few things in one of their videos when the camera panned to the back of the church.
I think this must be the video he’s talking about. It wasn’t particularly easy to find.
He points out that the congregation “is a bit thin at the back. And old. It’s in desperate need of some new sap.”
It’s not that old. Any Catholic church would be pleased as punch to have any young adults in it these days. Moreover, I see plenty of college-age looking adults in that sanctuary (that’s Christianese for the main church hall where the preaching happens). But I do agree that the crowd thins toward the back. All churches face that problem–which constitutes his larger point anyway.
Now Tim Stanley sweeps through the expected statistics: “just 500,000 attend [Episcopalian] services on a Sunday. . . its sister church in England isn’t doing much better.” Why, “only 2 per cent of young people call themselves Anglican.”
Having painted his picture, he launches into the blame portion of the Tim Stanley Show:
This [decline] is despite the Church of England spending decades chasing cultural relevance.
“Cultural Relevance” = “Committing Suicide.”
Our surprisingly-young prophet knows exactly when this mission drift began, too:
Like many agonies, you can blame it on the 1960s. The experiences of world war and nuclear threat seemed to necessitate a rethink in the way Christians acted: to preach less, listen more.
OH AND SURE, he concedes graciously, a little of that might have been okay. After all, he tells us in all pious earnestness, “humility and meekness are inherently Christian virtues.” But everybody went too far, apparently.
Stanley constructs the narrative of a religion whose leaders have gone so far to chase “cultural relevance” and avoid offense that they’ve lost the one thing they could possibly offer a world he sees as dying in its sins. He thinks that if they’d quit doing that, and got back to shaking their collective index finger at everyone, then people would soon climb back into the pews.
(It’s interesting that he singles out “Western Christianity” as committing this great sin of caring about “cultural relevance.” He never explains how Eastern Christianity avoided this great misstep. We’re still gearing up for a look at the myths of persecution and explosive growth in that part of the world, so maybe we’ll discover it together later. If you already know, clue a friend in, down in the comments?)
What Happened When Christian Leaders Went Too Far.
Once those leaders got a little too invested in pushing that inclusiveness and non-judgmentalism too far, they lost their monopoly on moral superiority, see.
All that happens when priests confirm the beliefs of Left-wing atheists is that the audience says: “thank you very much” and goes on being atheist, because they’re not being challenged; they’re being validated.
And we’ve seen this attitude a zillion times. I literally wrote about it yesterday somewhere or other, and I don’t recall being nice about how I worded whatever it was. Christians, particularly fundagelicals (but obviously hardline Catholics too, as he demonstrates!), attack people being compassionate or kind because those compassionate, kind Christians ain’t making any sales like that.
It might blow someone’s mind to hear this, but Stanley’s objection is far from new–or uncommon. In fact, very early into my blogging career I heard it from someone on the receiving end of Christian love just like his.
Christian Love, Doing What It Always Does.
Very, very long-time readers–or extremely dedicated and completionist newer ones (and thanks go to you all! ♥♥♥♥!)–might remember a post in the first year of this very blog about “the Quiet Christian” (TQC). I’d gotten the impression that he was only doing it in order to evangelize the people he was helping, and I didn’t like that.
Well, he wrote to me. And we had a long correspondence about what he was doing, and how I’d perceived it and why. And he ended up changing a lot of his approach (and much of the text on his blog) as a result. That wasn’t the impression he’d wanted to give, and when he realized he was giving it off, he adjusted course. He’d just wanted to be a decent human being.
I was hugely impressed by TQC, but also dismayed–and outraged–by how his fellow Christians treated him right on his own site.
You see, they didn’t reckon that he’d win a lot of converts through his kindness.
They thought he needed to be preachy, judgmental, and controlling. They thought that if he didn’t demand conversion and compliance, if he didn’t make these goals the absolute center of everything he did, then gosh, he’d never make any sales at all. In fact, they were all very firm on this point–and brutally vicious toward him when he gently resisted their demands that he change to suit them better.
They ended up driving that sweetheart entirely from their religion. He took down the site, and in his last email to me confessed that he’d lost faith entirely. He was first stunned, then heartbroken to finally see what so many of the rest of us already knew about his tribe.
Validation = The Worst Thing EVER.
Tim Stanley falls very much into that same mindset as that of the Christians who helped deconvert TQC. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like him can’t offer too much “validation,” especially not to evil “Left-wing atheists.”
(He never actually explains what he means by the term “validation,” either, incidentally. Everything he implies is “validating” is stuff I’d simply consider kindness, science acceptance, or healing graciousness. He makes it sound more like cosseting or spoiling.)
If TRUE CHRISTIANS™ make this dire mistake, then all the poor wretched vile sinners around them will never realize that they are, as they are, completely unacceptable to King Him–or, rather–to his god. If Christian salespeople never ask for the purchase, they won’t make sales!
That’s really where Stanley makes his worst missteps.
He references a speech that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave to the Trades Union Congress. In the speech, the Archbishop denounced the “gig economy” as “an ancient evil,” which Stanley graciously concedes jusssssst might be true.
But he assumes that the Archbishop’s goal was to make sales for Anglicanism, then assumes that the Archbishop made no such sales that day with that speech. Then he assumes that the Archbishop made no sales because he didn’t “challenge” his audience; he only “validated” their “Left-wing” beliefs as “atheists.” (Because all atheists are left-wing, amirite? Can I hear a rAmen?)
Well, I just read the text of the Archbishop’s speech. No way, no how was the Archbishop aiming to convert anybody–not even “Left-wing atheists.” Instead, he challenged oligarchs and huge corporations–and encouraged workers to agitate for justice.
The Real Blame: Loss of His Monopoly.
A very clear picture emerges of the kind of salesmanship that Tim Stanley fully approves of–and of a narrative he thinks occurred in the name of improving sales of his religion. He thinks that Christians who thunder condemnation and judgment upon non-Christians, especially atheists (since he does name them specifically in the piece), it makes people more likely to want that unique product his group sells. With its recent emphasis on social justice, he thinks, Christianity loses its only monopoly.
For all that, he completely has a point. He’s just wrong about what the monopoly is.
Christianity offers one thing that cannot be gotten anywhere else, a product that–by design–can only come from their salespeople’s hands: their semi-approval. They call it different things, of course. Repentance. Heaven. Salvation. But ultimately it comes down to their semi-approval. Once someone has jumped through whatever hoops the salesman holds out, then that person may feel safe–sort of.
Tim Stanley can’t actually provide a real reason for anybody else to fear the thing which he fears. So instead, he slams his fellow Christians for not pushing hard enough with what he calls their “distinct message.”
When Things Go Pear-Shaped.
For all his warbling at the end about “culture and ethics” and the “beauty and kindness that keeps us from sliding into barbarism,” Tim Stanley’s pure disdain for any of those qualities shines through most clearly. Every single example he gave of a progressive, liberal Christian church spoke to culture, ethics, beauty, and kindness–and he wanted nothing to do with it.
He lacks any clarity of perception because he’s on a man on a mission. He wants to expose this great and horrific wrong he perceives within the Church Universal. Ultimately, he thinks he knows how to fix it. But first he must persuade his peers–especially the Christians of the Anglican church and Grace Cathedral!–that they commit a great wrong by diving too deeply into social justice for King Him.
He’d likely be the first to reject the real truth of why his religion is declining. I don’t think he’d even know how to deal with it. So instead, he finds something he can rail against, something he thinks can be fixed: creeping liberalism, mission drift, and excessive kindness to people he thinks need a firm disapproving-at.
Truth and reality are both anathema to broken systems. When someone trapped in one finally realizes that nothing’s working the way the group says it should, they need a problem that won’t threaten their worldview too much–or change the stuff about that broken system that they themselves like.
Why Things Are Really Going Pear-Shaped.
Christians can’t assign blame where it truly belongs. To do so would be to concede that their system does absolutely nothing that they think it should.
Tim Stanley thinks that Christianity began to decline because they got too worried about seeking the approval of a lost and dying world. He’s completely wrong about why Christianity came to dominate much of the western half of the world, of course. It had nothing to do with “preaching and martyrdom,” as he puts it. His version of reality fits better into his narrative about liberalism destroying the religion, though.
The real answer looks a lot more like this:
Having come to dominance through political machination and brutal retaliation, the Catholic Church came to see its power weakened considerably starting in the Reformation. The less retaliatory power Christian leaders and communities wield, the fewer people wish to remain in their group. By now, most of these groups can only command minor retaliatory powers, so people join and remain members only if they wish to be here.
And the simple truth is that Christians have never had to worry about crafting groups that drew people in voluntarily. They’ve always had the power to make people join them, like it or not. And Christian leaders didn’t care either way until lately, when they were forced to care.
Noticing Wrongly-Assigned Blame.
The easiest way to tell if the blame has been given to the wrong party is to imagine what would happen if that party were erased from the equation.
In Rishi’s case on the Kitchen Nightmares episode, if Rocky had never existed, would her restaurant be doing well?
No, probably not. Almost certainly not, even. With Rocky gone, Rishi could easily go right out to make more mistakes just like the ones she made in this episode. She still wouldn’t have a professional demeanor, still would have been belly-dancing for her uncomfortable and unappreciative guests, still would not have known what good food tasted like, and still wouldn’t have known how to eject an employee who wasn’t performing up to standards (largely because she still wouldn’t have known how to evaluate an employee in the first place because she still wouldn’t have known what those standards were to begin with, as well as because she’d still be unable to stand up for herself against malingering employees–and still would be just as attention-seeking and validation-focused).
Rocky–the person himself–is almost incidental to that cascading chain of failures that led to Rishi becoming exactly the kind of restaurateur who’d hire someone like Rocky.
So in a very real sense, Rocky wasn’t the problem.
Rishi was the problem.
The Breakdown of Christianity.
In similar fashion, plenty of Christian groups don’t give a fig about social justice. They remain deeply conservative–and deeply sales-oriented in exactly the way Tim Stanley prefers.
And they’re declining too. That’s the whole point of everything: no matter what Christians do, they decline, because they aren’t doing anything to affect the real problem they’re having.
In the years to come, people will write histories of Christianity. They will talk about what we’re living through today. They’ll note, with wry smiles no doubt, that Christian leaders threw everything at the wall to see what would stick, to reverse their decline. And nothing worked. I wonder if they’ll note in passing why nothing worked.
If not, we just have.
NEXT UP: We’ll be looking at more stuff Christians blame for their decline, as well as examining the common Christian belief in the original Christianity. I’ve also got some Ed Stetzer fisking on schedule. It’s going to be busy! See you soon!
1 Often dysfunctional people come up with a big guess about what’s going on with a situation. This is their Grand Unification Crank Theory. It is The Big Problem Here. Fix that, and everything in the world becomes sane and reasonable again. Opinion writers and people who send in Letters to the Editor (LTTEs) are particularly prone to making sweeping declarations of this nature. (Back to the post!)
Not a footnote, just an endnote about the KN episode: Rishi Brown really wanted, more than anything, to be admired and adored for her belly dancing. That’s why she’d tried so hard to combine dancing with running the restaurant. She ended up selling the place to someone who could be happy focusing only on running a good restaurant, and she went back to just belly-dancing. I haven’t seen anything out of her belly-dancing studio for a year or two, so she might have closed it too. Prohibition Grille ended up closing eventually, but it had a decent run all things considered.
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