His popular Facebook post, which begins, “What is happening in Christianity?” has been shared more than 20,000 times as of this writing. It has made its way into at least one article celebrating it (also widely shared) as well. But John Cooper’s post—which calls out popular people deconstructing faith and leaving Christianity—comes at a convenient time.
In it, he takes aim at the motivation of artists and “influencers” who are being “vocal and bold” in their “falling away.”
Interestingly, these same people actually stand to lose their entire careers by being honest about a loss of faith.
Also interestingly, despite criticizing the motivations of others, John Cooper is the only one who stands to benefit from the things he’s communicating to the same target audience.
I’m going to list some specific issues with Cooper’s post, but first, some background:
John Cooper is the lead singer and sole remaining, founding member of the Christian Rock institution Skillet. Skillet dropped a new album August 2nd, and has been pushing the new stuff in preparation for a tour this Fall. As someone who relies on the Evangelical Machine functioning in order to maintain a presence and generate income, Cooper depends greatly on continued excitement and passion for the message Evangelicalism is offering. Professional, personal, spiritual… There’s a lot wrapped up in it when you have the role that he has.
His Facebook feed of late mainly consists of positivity snippets and motivational activities (such as weightlifting). His Twitter feed contains a lot of band posts along with some low key nationalism, glam shots, occasional pop culture takes, some “sun’s out guns out” bro culture stuff, and pics of him hanging out with Fox News hosts and shows. Wherever John has a social media presence, he aims to “keep it real,” though his accounts are quite clearly concerned with image and branding. None of this would be surprising but for the tone he takes in his now-viral post. The cultural Evangelicalism of his social feed stands in stark contrast to the more grand religious charges of his dramatic warnings and exhortations.
THE SIMPLE VERSION: John Cooper is a Christian rockstar concerned with the elevated platform and influence of other popular Christians who are leaving the faith… But despite his charge to include him in not making such folks so relevant and influential, the primary result of his post is to amplify his own platform and solidify his base as a thought leader.
^This should be lost on no one. He’s using his post to increase his popularity.
I’ve heard so many times that we just “need to focus more on the Word” in posts like Cooper’s, or from stage when they play churches and festivals… but decade after decade, I see no signs of improvement in the Biblical literacy of those wielding that message in front of a crowd. It’s amazing to me that the vast majority of these Evangelical bands don’t even stay in the room for the message wherever they play. Once they’re done, they leave stage and hang out in a backstage room until they’re needed on stage again. They tour, so they’re seldom in regular attendance at any “home” faith community, and when they do show up, they tend to be treated like rockstars and elevated to prominent places to help draw crowds.
…This is nothing new.
The central issue is that a lot Christian bands depend on this system working, even as they are entrusting themselves to institutions that they themselves clearly don’t resonate with much. They encourage a “Christian life” which they are conveniently above leading. Being in a band is great in that you get to do all the fun parts of church while avoiding the things no one likes. But the major disconnect at play here is between means and ends: Christian artists often want to see real “life change” and “breakthrough” via the very systems they are not all that invested in, if they’re honest.
They are like a separate class of Christian. Sermons and regular involvement and relationships are things for the other people. Not for them. (This is not necessarily directed at John Cooper or Skillet. I am simply relaying what I’ve seen and experienced over the course of my life in these circles.)
All that said, it’s hard not to see John Cooper’s post, at least in part, as an attempt to garner attention as he releases a new album and prepares to tour. That doesn’t really bother me in itself so much as the way he misrepresents and maligns the people he takes aim at.
The timing could be purely coincidental. I don’t really care. Again, it’s the way his post dismisses and distorts what people have been communicating and why they’ve decided to share openly... That’s the part that bothers me. Not his beliefs. I deeply understand Cooper’s beliefs, in fact. I’ve held his beliefs. But what I don’t like is his patronizing explanation of ideas the people he’s criticizing already know intimately. It never makes sense to me why, when people experience a shift in their belief or thinking, others rush in to explain to them things they already know and have already held to be “truth.” It’s as if the missing piece for all these Christians losing their faith is simply that they’ve never heard it clarified for them the way John Cooper (or whoever else) can clarify it. Or as if that clarification of things we’ve all heard a million times will stop change from happening, and will prevent others from deconstructing, evolving, etc.
That said, Cooper’s post doesn’t strike me as an honest attempt to listen to these same people he’s maligning regardless. He’s not trying to hear out someone like Marty Sampson (one of the clear targets of his post, not mentioned by name). He could easily contact Marty and ask to hear more rather than regurgitating the evangelical lingo everyone knows all too well, but that’s not the route Cooper chooses. He chooses the route of misrepresenting and oversimplifying Marty’s process to his audience instead. He condescends to Marty (and many others) in the way he communicates, assuming his audience won’t know or won’t care.
Sadly, I think he’s mostly right in that assumption.
To be clear: Cooper’s argumentation—from the onset—demeans and cheapens what other people are experiencing and communicating.
That is my issue with it.
It’s not fair to any sort of real dialog, and I don’t think it should be celebrated.
JOHN Cooper’s post assumes AND MISREPRESENTS a lot of PEOPLE AND IDEAS...
• He assumes the average pastor should be a thought influencer despite so much evidence to the contrary. He’s either unaware or apathetic as to how many pastors show a consistent, baseline ignorance of the culture and context surrounding the words they preach every week, and how many preach something they call “the Bible” that ultimately looks a lot more like Evangelical culture, nationalism, neoconservative politics (etc). Certainly not the revolutionary, anti-imperial justice narrative of the scriptures.
• He assumes “Hell” as we know it is a foregone conclusion to grapple with, and that as a concept it is academically sound and the exclusive way to interpret the texts he draws from. In fact, the greatest academics in the world today would put that base idea under great doubt... but mainstream Evangelicalism wants nothing to do with those who best understand scripture despite its claims to honor scripture and its supremacy.
• He assumes that church music is less theologically sound and less important compared to the sermon. I would argue that, as shallow and superficial as a lot of church music is, it tends to be LESS directly toxic compared to preaching. I’ve observed that people don’t tend to write songs about the worst things they believe, though they will preach about them intensely, with tears in their eyes, pleading for those in attendance to better grovel before a withholding God.
• He assumes people deconstructing or walking away are still attempting to lead and be “influencers,” which I’ve seen almost no evidence of. Equating the honesty and integrity of a public figure saying (publicly), “I can’t live a lie, here’s where I’m at” with “follow me, I understand it all now” strikes me as enormously unfair.
• He assumes all basic goodness and truth belong solely to Christianity and scripture (which, incidentally, is contrary to scripture), and that people can’t know or claim those things as “good” outside of his own worldview and understanding.
• He assumes that people making truth out to be universal is the same thing as making themselves out to be “King,” as though they are motivated by a power trip.
• He assumes these people do not believe in the “supremacy of truth,” which is both rude and deceptive, since by “truth” he only means truth as he sees it, as though he were its arbiter.
• He assumes the problem American Christianity is having is not taking things seriously enough in regards to “the preeminence of the Word,” by which he means the Bible. (Scripture, in fact, says Jesus should have the preeminence.) But his Evangelical view of the Bible and theology has been taken very seriously. Over many decades, in fact. We have an entire generation traumatized by his particular religious expression to prove it.
• He assumes that someone saying we don’t really talk about the problem of Hell means they’re saying no one ever brings it up at all, when obviously what they mean is that we don’t talk about it meaningfully—openly, without quick answers and evasions to absolve God of it. We talk around it in church, in clichés which don’t honor the question so much as pay it lip service.
• He uses the faulty “lunatic” argument for saying people shouldn’t be able to take anything from Jesus unless they believe as he does, in the way he does, about Jesus.
• He misuses Jesus’ statement of being “the way, the truth, the life” in standard Evangelical fashion—ripping it from its context as a political parallel to the claims of the Caesars. Where Jesus spoke those words to comfort his disciples, Cooper uses them as a tool of fear by which he might discomfort everyone else.
...That’s just some of what I take issue with in his fearful reaction to what is taking place within Christian culture.
John Cooper would have the faithful remain as he is: scared. Scared that people going through a loss of faith will drag others down with them. He’s willing to distort what they’re saying and why they’re saying it so long as it means turning them into a cautionary tale. And that core fear perhaps reveals a less sure foundation than Cooper’s confident persona would suggest.
To put it another way, he might be projecting.
Frankly, I’ve seen a lot of posts like his. It just bothers me that they seldom seem like an attempt to listen. They seem more like an attempt to oversimplify and fortify one’s own position. He downplays the reliance on charismatic voices to lead and set the tone, but the irony is that John Cooper is still very much trying to lead and influence others to see things his way. In fear, he warns them not to follow those other voices, only his... or rather, only God’s, which just so happens to agree with him.
His central, underlying posture seems to be that people can’t be trusted with their own process.
Otherwise he wouldn’t be so scared of them being honest about where they are in their own stories. Cooper doesn’t trust the popular “faces” leaving the faith publicly, and he doesn’t trust a broad Evangelical audience to know what to do with that information. Thus, he distorts the motivations of those sharing their journey or doubt in an attempt to influence the perspectives of those in his audience.
Some might say such tactics are deceptive, even manipulative.
Ultimately, when it comes to popular Christians deconstructing or losing their faith, it would seem John Cooper would have them maintain appearances rather than their integrity.
In closing, I’m not trying to quibble or create hysteria. I don’t want a fight.
Actually, I’d love to talk with John about all of this, if he’s willing. I would record and release a civil, warm conversation if he’d be down to have one.