Podcast: Are You Aware of Your Own Blind Spots? (Collin Hansen)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Wake Up to Blind Spots

In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Collin Hansen, author of Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church, discusses the idea of blind spots—problems with our lives, priorities, and theology that we don't even know are there. He explains our tendency as Christians to separate ourselves into one of three camps, highlights how technology and our politically charged culture fuel division in the church, and reflects on what it would look like to wake up to our own blind spots and to lovingly engage with those with whom we disagree.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview

Blind Spots

Blind Spots

Collin Hansen

Written to address the problem of disunity within evangelicalism, this book will help Christians who are committed to the gospel view their differences as opportunities for more effective ministry.

Uncertainty about the Future American Church

01:37

Matt Tully
It's a truism today that we're living in a post-Christian society more and more. We look around and some of the cultural assumptions and norms that used to characterize our society are fading away and very quickly it seems like those old norms and beliefs and values are actually viewed as dangerous and dangerously out of date. I think that can lead some Christians—conservative Christians in particular—to feel uncertain about our place in society going forward in the future. I think that has led to some issues in the church. Can you resonate with those feelings of uncertainty, and maybe even anxiety, about what the Christian church is going to look like in America in the future?

Collin Hansen
Absolutely. A lot of this is age-specific. Think about people like the boomer generation or even the Greatest Generation before them, some of whom are still with us; they've seen pretty dramatic changes in their lifetime. My grandmother often talks about her own mother who, when she died in her 90s, said to her daughter, You just won't believe what I've had to deal with in my life, the changes that I've seen throughout most of the 20th century. And my grandmother now says, When I get to heaven, just wait until she hears what I've had to deal with! She didn't even know about the Internet! I think we're living in the midst of a digital revolution with the Internet, the consequences of which we have hardly begun to be able to understand. So many of us in positions of influence and responsibility in institutions are still people who were not digital natives—we still lived for maybe ten, fifteen, or more years of our lives without being inundated by technology. I just don't think we fully grasp how much that has changed things and how different it is for people simply relating to one another when they are digital natives—when they've grown up in the world of smartphones and things like that. So there are a lot of ways to talk about the changes that we're undergoing. You could talk about just politics. You could talk about philosophy, but then sometimes it's easy to underestimate the technological changes there, especially because we're in the midst of them and it will be decades, if not centuries, before people look back and are able to actually explain what we lived through in these in these years of the 1990s through today.

Divisive Issues in the Church

04:27

Matt Tully
It’s interesting to consider the way that these technological advances have an influence on the doctrinal conversations that we're having and on the issues that we're discussing as Christians. Sometimes it seems to me like the traditional doctrinal distinctions and divisions that used to separate Christians still exist, but maybe they're not as prominent. They're not on the fore of the conversation that we're having, particularly when you dial into evangelicals as a broadly defined group. It seems like some of those traditional doctrinal discussions, whether related to baptism or to the sacraments or the ins and outs of soteriology, are secondary to more prominent issues like race, social justice discussions, sexuality—all these other issues that culture is very interested in more broadly. Have you noticed this shift in emphasis among Christians in terms of the things that we view as dividing us from each other?

Collin Hansen
So there's a good book, Finding the Right Hills to Die on by Gavin Ortlund, dealing with the issue of theological triage and one of the questions that we sought to address in that book is how some of those issues will change over time. So if we were having this conversation a century ago, we would say that the question of the millennial reign of Christ would be an absolutely vital issue that divides people who believe in the Bible and people who reject the Bible. People who believe the Bible would be called millennialists and people who reject the Bible would be amillennialist, or especially postmillennialists. Well, that sounds kind of foolish to us now. That seems pretty silly. We don't divide churches that way now and we certainly don't divide orthodoxy that way. Some churches do divide that way, but fairly recently the Evangelical Free church decided to omit from their requirements for ordination with their pastors a section on the pre Millennial reign of Christ. It made sense when they had it in there originally because that was a shorthand way of being able to know if somebody believed the Bible. But that's just not what we use anymore. So when it comes to these issues of theological triage—what's a first order issue (inside or outside the kingdom), a second order issue (inside or outside the same churches), or a third order issue (agree to disagree within the church)—they do change over time, especially between the second and the third. Not so much the first and second typically, but the second and third. So you certainly could say in the Reformation, if you want to go back further, that an issue of baptism would have been at least a second order issue, which it is now, but perhaps even also a first order issue there. And a first order issue that, because of the way that Christendom operated, if you disagreed with the church in that situation then you would be killed for it—you'd be considered a heretic if you were a Baptist in the churches of Martin Luther, and to a lesser extent some of the Reformed churches of today's Switzerland. So those do change all the time and in the last ten years we have clearly seen a shift where “social issues” or “political issues” have risen to the forefront. But I would say pretty much for my entire career— for the last 20 years or so—the issues that have been most contentious have been race and gender. And that is still the case today and I'm not sure that's going to change anytime soon. How people deal with them is different, but those issues have remained significant. I do a top ten theology stories of the year list at the Gospel Coalition every year and it's pretty consistent: issues related to Islam, race, and gender are pretty much perennial dividing points.

Priorities of Differing Worldviews

08:53

Matt Tully
In your book Blind Spots you argue that you can divide Christians into three groups and that those groups represent different ways of viewing the world—different default approaches to thinking about some of these issues, especially related to engaging the broader culture. Can you walk us through what those three groups are and briefly summarize what each of them prioritizes?

Collin Hansen
Yes. The book in 2015, Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church I think in some ways was a message that was not well-timed. I think if the book had come out in 2017 as opposed to 2015 people might have thought differently about it.

Matt Tully
Do you think you were too early in terms of—

Collin Hansen
I do think so. A lot of the book was born out of an experience that I had moving across the country. I spent most of my life in the upper Midwest, in Chicago, and grew up in South Dakota. Then I spent some time out in New Jersey outside of New York City, and then my wife and I moved to Birmingham, Alabama. One of the things that I encountered moving to the South was a phenomenon that I wasn't as familiar with elsewhere which are churches that I might agree with in almost every single doctrinal point, but that were poisonous—even satanic in some ways—in how they dealt with each other and how they approached the world. It makes sense when you go back historically within the South—and it's not exclusive to the American South, it's happened elsewhere. Churches that are orthodox in their beliefs—not even orthodox, but conservative, evangelical, Reformed; you can go right down the line—but have sort of a massive blindspot in some sort of area. We all do have blindspots in some ways that we don't know today, but for those churches, especially in the South, it was around race; and you could broaden that out to sort of include politics in general. I was surprised to find that you can have churches that are really good doctrinally, but for some reason you would never want to be a part of those churches because the people are so cruel toward one another and so antagonistic and hateful toward the world. So that sort of unlocked a perspective that we often define our churches by what they're not. So a church will mark itself as being, This is the place to go if you are courageous, if you're willing to stand for truth. Courage is a good thing. But again, it's in isolation. It's, Because we're not like all of those other wimpy churches that compromise on all their values. But then you see the opposite problem in a different church that says, We're the compassionate church where you come to be really nice, just like Jesus was so nice to people. That's fine, but without the courage part it just makes the opposite mistake there. Then you have these “commissioned” churches and they're all about evangelism. They don't care about the doctrinal issues: Let's just agree to disagree on those. Let's not talk about those, let's stay united there. But they also don't want to be squishy. They don't want to be only compassion over there, though they'll do some compassionate things in many cases, but again they define themselves as, We're not the doctrinal church and we're not the compromising church. Well the thing is these are all positive things—to be courageous, compassionate, and commissioned. They all have—

Matt Tully
They all have Bible verses backing them up.

Collin Hansen
—they all have Bible verses, they all have an element of Jesus's ministry tying them together. But unfortunately, instead of pursuing churches that bring all of these together in the image of Christ, we create churches that define themselves against the other churches as if they're pursuing some sort of tribal market share, and they're getting to other people who have the same strengths and the same weaknesses, and i.e. they can't then see each other's blind spots. So that's the premise of the book and I think a lot of people after the 2016 election started to talk a lot more about issues of tribalism and division within evangelicals. But from what I had experienced in my own travels in my own life, these issues had been there long before. Maybe the election just brought them to the fore.

Consumerist Approach to Church

13:08

Matt Tully
You mentioned market share—how much of the division that we see sometimes along these lines that you've laid out do you think relates to this consumerist mentality we have with our churches—you can kind of just pick the church that you want that fits best with your preconceived ideas or approaches to things. Is that a big factor in this?

Collin Hansen
There are a lot of different things that we could talk about there. Going back to what I said about technology earlier, I did a book on the philosophy of Charles Taylor—Carl Truman has a chapter in that book—and he says that church discipline died with the invention of the automobile. Consumer Christianity also was invented by the automobile—when you can drive wherever you want within your city or even outside of your city to be able to find the church that suits your particular feelings or particular emotions. Just imagine the megachurch. We had a few from history—like Charles Spurgeon’s church in a dense urban environment—but there was no such thing as this suburban megachurch. There was no such thing as the suburbs, really, before the automobile, not at the mass scale that you see after World War II. So you see this ability to be able to drive wherever you want to go, and then you also have this concept of the “big sort” where our culture is so thoroughly ideological that we can't bring ourselves to engage with somebody who disagrees with us about stuff. So our churches begin to sort themselves according to particular preferences as well. And not merely superficial ones about the music, but, This is the kind of place where I know that everybody votes for Donald Trump. Or, This is the kind of church where I know no one votes for Donald Trump. And so they divide themselves that way, and of course in a million other ways as well. That's a major trend and again, we don't really understand how much things like social media and the digital revolution changed that by conditioning us to see people as ideas and as avatars as opposed to as whole people. And then at the same time, the technologies that facilitate that conditioning make it so easy to transfer between churches. These are major trends.

The Effect of Technology

15:26

Matt Tully
I know many people have talked about technology fostering these echo chambers where we can cultivate our feeds to only have the people—again, disembodied people—but only the people that we agree with speaking into us. It also facilitates, as you talk about, the caustic debate that is not a real person.

Collin Hansen
Well, it breeds a self-righteousness that's developed from saying, My tribe is more like an anti-tribe. That's the way David Brooks and others talk about it. It's not so much what I'm for, it's what I'm against. And so they develop around these lines. So you get this ex-evangelical tribe which is united not so much by what they affirm—because they don't really agree on much—but they're united on what they hate, which is likely a patriarchal evangelical church of their upbringings. And the same thing on the conservative side of things. Again, not so much united by what they agree on—because they actually disagree on a ton of different stuff and they would kill each other if they were in the same room—but as long as they have the same united enemy, then that shows them that they're in the right on that issue. Unfortunately, that perspective afflicts the church. I'll put it this way: there are two different ways to be able to grow a church of influence. My Blind Spots book tries to commend one kind of way to do it because when you look around, you do see some churches that bring together the courage, compassion, and the conviction. I think about Tim Keller's church as an example. You see there in Tim somebody who brings together the best of courageous evangelism—a stand for truth—and at the same time, compassion through initiatives like Hope for New York, and commission through things like Redeemer City to City church planting. But a more common way that churches build themselves is by being against something. So a leader who picks one of those (courage, compassion, or commission) and just defines him himself or herself against all these other options out there. Both ways “work” in the world's terms to be able to build a church, but I would argue that only one of them truly honors Christ. The other one simply plays upon our particular prejudices in this age.

Blind Spots of the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement

17:47

Matt Tully
You are a journalist by training and in 2006 you wrote this article that would go on to become a pretty influential and notable article for Christianity Today called “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” You were trying to explain the rise of the New Calvinists—this growing group of young, as you say, broadly Reformed evangelicals who are excited about their faith and excited about Reformed doctrines. Now looking back over a decade later from when that article was published—you then wrote a book for Crossway with the same title—what do you think are some of the blind spots that have been characteristic of the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement?

Collin Hansen
Well I think most of the YRR would fall into the courage category. They're really good at being able to stand for truth, but not necessarily on some of the other points. I even wrote the article and I wrote the book without truly understanding why this was happening. I asked people—that's what a journalist does—you go around and you ask people why this was happening. I remember one prominent pastor said to me, It's happening because it's true. Well, a lot of things happen because they're not true. If you looked at Joel Osteen's church and you said, It's really huge. Why is it huge? Because it's true, that would be incorrect. So that's not really a sufficient way to be able to explain it. So what I found, actually through the philosophy of Charles Taylor, was an explanation for what was happening. To a certain extent there is both a good and a negative with what's happened with the YRR movement. The negative side is that for many people it's a coming of age narrative by which they are asserting their individual expressed identity over and against the inherited religion or tradition of their youth. So imagine your stereotypical Southern Baptist who grows up as perhaps a precocious, theologically-minded youth in a situation that's very revivalistic, very emotionally driven, pretty thin on theology, pretty overwhelming in its syncretism toward a religious right culture. And when he or she discovers Reformed theology, it not only empowers them in many positive ways as they understand the different aspects of the Bible in a new way, but it becomes a cudgel to then pound the church and the family of their youth and say, Why did you prevent me from this? Why did you stop me from this? So it becomes this way of asserting themselves against that youthful religion.

Matt Tully
It's like a marker of their individuality.

Collin Hansen
Exactly. And that doesn't look that different from the ex-evangelical movement that we were talking about before. It’s ended up in a more positive place, but it has the same basic take, or same basic posture, toward life. I found in the last decade since the YRR article that for a lot of the people who started out that way—sort of that cage stage Reformed—they had to do one of two things: one of them is that they either went into a sort of position of institutional authority and they had to find that if you keep doing that, all you do is create endless restless people in your church. It never matures there. And that causes all kinds of problems within a church when you are actually responsible to care for souls. Some other people, if that's been their narrative, they just keep spinning. So they were Reformed when it wasn't popular, but when Reformed got popular they had to find something else that was unpopular. So they just keep coming of age by declaring their individuality. So that's the negative side of things. But like I said, the positive side is it's helped to introduce them to a big theology of God that's helped them to suffer and to be able to live with joy in a world that is very anxious. It's been a pillar, it's been a rock of stability for them, and it's been able to expose their blind spots in a world where we're told that what you feel is sovereign. If you don't feel good, then something must be wrong with you or something must be wrong with your theology. Reformed theology has definitely helped expose that blind spot and say, I can't trust myself, and I can't trust my feelings all the time, and I can't necessarily trust the messages that I’m receiving. I need to run everything through the filter of God's word and I have to choose to believe that God's word is true even if I don't want to—even if I don't feel like it. God is honored in that and ultimately it's for my good. So I've learned a lot since then and it's been really helpful, but it was funny that it's not until after the book that I really began to understand more of the why. The book Blind Spots is the what; and my subsequent writing, especially the book on Charles Taylor Our Secular Age, is more of the why.

Overreacting to Former Blind Spots

23:06

Matt Tully
The interesting and tricky thing about blind spots is it seems like—and maybe the YRR is an example of this—when we discover there's a blind spot that we've been living with for a long time, it's so easy to overreact and go in the other direction and as a result, we develop the opposite blind spot that we had before.

Collin Hansen
Yes, think of it that way. So most of the people that I meet in the YRR movement have either come out of the compassion side or the commission side. I would be an example of somebody who came out of the compassion side of things within the United Methodist church. You'll see a lot of people who are refugees from mainline Protestant liberalism where the only thing you heard about was Jesus meek and mild. So that was a problem and Reformed theology was a strong correction to that. Hopefully we haven't lost the compassion side; but again, that's what I'm saying: sometimes you can swing to the opposite. But I think more people have come out of the commissioned side. They either grew up in the quintessential Southern Baptist megachurch, or you're Willow Creek style seeker church where they are looking for more theological substance than what they were getting in that “commissioned” church. And I think that's been more true. They've still brought a lot of evangelistic and missions zeal as they come into that camp, but it's often been switches from those two. There are fewer people—though some notable examples—who have come from say, fundamentalism, with the overemphasis on courage to the exclusion of others who have then drifted into Reformed theology. But a lot of it is switches from those other two categories.

Matt Tully
Why do you think that is? Why fewer from the more fundamentalist side of things?

Collin Hansen
In part because those churches already did really emphasize doctrine, so the main attraction of simply a church that takes the Bible seriously was not so much the case for them. They already were in churches that took it seriously. So there wasn't that sort of black and white switch for them in that case.

Matt Tully
It gets more down to doctrinal distinction.

Collin Hansen
Yes. It was somebody who was reading the Bible and really drilled in the Bible their entire life, which was not often the case in the other two. So you're exactly right: it's less of a switch from no Bible, or little bible, to Bible; and more of a switch from this view of the Bible to that view of the Bible. And that requires a fair bit more nuance. Also, fundamentalist cultures are thicker than mainline Protestantism or seeker evangelicalism. There's a lot more pressure within those circles. There's a lot more family ties, and there's also a lot more shame involved in leaving them. A lot of people are leaving the other two groups, so it would be kind of ridiculous to have a lot of shame attached to that. They are hemorrhaging numbers in a lot of ways, especially the compassion mainline Protestant side of things. But within fundamentalism, often you are going to risk serious loss of community and perhaps even family—even in a switch from going from fundamentalist to being, say conservative Reformed evangelical. So there are a lot of challenges there as well. And also, fundamentalism is just a much smaller group than the other two.

Highlighting Out-of-Step Beliefs

26:29

Matt Tully
Is there a place for that kind of polemical prophetic speaking out against other believers? People who at least claim to be following Christ when they're out of step?

Collin Hansen
Yeah, for sure. If I didn't think that, then I sure would be out of step with the website that I run! We have plenty of polemics out there because there's plenty of problems. We'll do the piece on Joel Osteen or on Bethel Church or on all that sort of stuff. Ultimately the difference is that as Christians, we are called to love our enemies. I think one of the major problems we run into is that we think by winning our enemies we're trying to vanquish them. But with your enemies, you're trying to turn them into your friends. That’s really all just in your posture. So if you see your enemies as people who you need to love out of the command and the example of Christ as he loved you when you were an enemy of God, then you can afford to even do polemics for the sake of loving them. I'm just thinking of a friend recently who confronted a couple of very close people because of lifestyle decisions they were making that were totally out of step. The world would see that as being unloving there, but it's the ultimate loving thing if we believe the truth. Unloving would be to simply ignore that kind of thing. So there is certainly a way to do polemics out of love, but it's a lot about your heart posture. I know that this friend did this because she loved these people. They weren't her enemies. They were her friends. But they reacted to it as if she was their enemy because the world doesn't understand how you can disagree with people and still love them. Our opportunity as Christians is to show that we can disagree but still love because we are not just our beliefs. We are not just our feelings that we assert in a sort of expressive individualistic kind of way. We are whole people—mind, body, soul, spirit—and thus can be loved even when we disagree. So it's more like how you treat your family members who disagree with you on things, but nevertheless you love them. That's the opportunity we have as Christians. So there's definitely a place to do it and to do it in love. But I find that a lot of polemics I see today are intended not so much to win the other person, but to vanquish that other person but only in the eyes of people who already agree with you.

Matt Tully
That's why I was going to say—you don't even care necessarily if the other person sees it or reads it.

Collin Hansen
Right. It's for your own crew. Go back to what I said about politics there. It's not about winning the other person. It's about making your other people feel—just your supporters—feel justified that they are so much more superior to everyone else. It's just an endless game of gotcha. But that's the thing—we're trying to turn our enemies into our friends and again, you do that by treating your enemies as friends, at least people worthy of love and living peaceably with them so far as it is possible with you, recognizing that often it's not possible.

Loving Those who Sin Differently

29:46

Matt Tully
You ask a really interesting question in the book, probably my favorite little bit. You say, Can you love a fellow Christian who sins differently than you do? What are you getting at with that question?

Collin Hansen
Well again, it goes back to preaching and the blind spots dynamic there. So let's just take one example: you could have a church that is really solid on sexual issues—and it's a hard time for a church to take its ground on sexual issues. So let's even say that they have a hard line on divorce. They say the Bible only says you can do it if a non-believer abandons the believer (1 Corinthians 7) or if there's been sexual immorality by one or more parties. So they take a hard stance on that and on homosexuality and transgenderism and everything like that. You might think they're standing for truth, they're standing for courage in a difficult time. That's great. But don't we all know churches that are like that are also just festering grounds for gossip and for backbiting and for slander? Let's take it out of the realm of the church there for a second—let's take it into the realm of online discourse. One of things I've found is that in an online discourse, lying is extremely effective. It's extremely effective. You have Christian websites that lie knowingly, explicitly, effectively in pursuit of truth. Well that's really strange. That's really strange. But again, what's their problem? They all have the same sin of slander, divisiveness, backbiting, cruelty. But it's all okay because they share the same sin. What they don't share is that they love to then point out other people who they see as compromising on these other values. They're comfortable in their sin because they all share the same sin, while they condemn people with different “sins”, which in this case is actually just manufactured; it's not even sins that they're talking about there. So that happens in churches and it happens in online discourse. People believe and say, Let us lie and slander and back bite and sow divisiveness so that God would be glorified. That's strange. That's impossible to justify biblically, but easy to justify if you start with this whole blind spot perspective: you're not so much looking to Jesus, you're looking to tribal identity and asserting yourself against all these other people out there.

Matt Tully
That's so interesting. It strikes me as the kind of thing you can only do when there is a blind spot—you're just completely out of touch with the reality of your worldview and the limitations that it has within it.

Collin Hansen
This is endemic in our culture. It's pervasive now of people who surround themselves only with voices that agree with them. I was thinking about this in regards to preaching. Imagine a pastor who's been preaching for a really long time and has a large and supportive audience and every time he says something, everybody just gives him the benefit of the doubt. That's a good thing in many ways, we would admire that. But the flip side of that is that there is nobody to ever tell him that he's ever wrong about anything. There's nobody to help him with any of his blind spots. The church, instead of being a place where iron sharpens iron, it becomes very dull and somehow dangerous as a blunt object. In that case, bringing this full circle, let's talk about one of the positives of the Internet age. One of the positives of the Internet age is that we're all basically speaking to the world now with the way podcasts work and social media work—there just aren't any more of these barriers now. We had a situation in our church where our pastor said something and then the next week it ended up in the “Washington Post.” We were a pretty small church at the time and the pastor would not have even foreseen that coming. But the point is when he was speaking to one group of people, he didn't realize he was speaking to the entire world and for all time. Well, that's scary. But let's see the positive there: it means that we have to get much better at anticipating objections. Namely, interrogating ourselves and looking for our own blind spots because they will be pointed out to you by people who don't always assume the best of you. So it really focuses and sharpens our communication and our introspection to be able to consider, Am I actually speaking for truth and speaking for Christ here? Or am I speaking within an echo chamber that doesn't allow me to understand what I'm actually saying?


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