As part of my research in the Heaven’s (Biblical/Christian) Hospitality last year, I read several books and kept notes in composition books for each one. As I am spending this year formulating a written product of all that research, I am finding that some of those notes will not be overtly useful to the project now. However, some of them are worthwhile in their own rite.
Here, in slightly edited form, I offer some of the notes I jotted down while reading When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert. I felt as though I was being nit picky in the final analysis, and so I will not do that level of criticism for the finished project, but I think my critique was devastating for their book, and since I find the book itself does the very harm (and more) it seeks to avoid, I am now sharing that critique with you.
From March 25, 2019
Foreword (pages 11-12)
Dr. J. Perkins, Founder and President Emeritus of the Christian Community Development Assoc. offers a 6-paragraph “foreword” to the book.
Pickin’ Perkins apart…
First sentence of the book, in bold type asks: “Have you ever done anything to help poor people?” Half way through this 6-paragraph foreword, we find another bold type sentence asking: “Have you ever done anything to hurt poor people?”
So far, so good. I wouldn’t imagine this book is doing any damage based on these questions alone. But once we take into account all the rhetorical effect of the book, we might view them differently.
Perkins establishes himself as an expert on poverty AND Christian ministry in the first two paragraphs. Also in that same amount of space, he has used the word “liberal,” and managed to do it with a rhetorical disdain for it. However, to his credit, he manages also to affirm his belief (generic affirmation) in Matt. 25:31-46 and 1st John 3:17-18. (So, at least some Bible passage is at least cited here, though I note they are not analyzed at all).
Perkins is addressing (largely) Evangelicals, people who do not actually read their Bibles, certainly not with the fervor of their grandparents and generations previous to them. But Perkins makes out to be an expert and cites a couple of important passages, alright, so even if these readers go look up these passages and study them in context, it will appear Perkins knows what he is talking about AND represents God as he speaks.
IF I BOTHER TO CHECK his credentials on the internet AND his references to Scripture, it will appear that I can trust him.
AND HE ENDORSES THIS BOOK!
So… as I find theology and/or Bible passages represented through the rest of this book, I can trust that this expert gives it all credibility. AND SO…if I find it all begins to support and protect political views I passionately hold on other grounds, I am not too likely to second-guess any of this – BECAUSE of the RHETORICAL FORCE Dr. Perkins achieves.
(How are those bold type questions looking now? Well okay, probably not all sinister yet, but surely I have called attention to the way such a case can be made.)
In the third paragraph, Perkins suggests Evangelicals “have come a long way” in being helpful to the poor. (Nothing like a little pat on the back from an expert!) He then suggests by speaking directly to the reader with direct address language that we have done much in the way of caring for the poor. He appeals to our sense of care, of sacrifice, of obligation fulfilled!
It is HERE, at THIS POINT in the brief foreword, that we find the second bold type question: “Have you ever done anything to hurt poor people?”
Of course, you already read the title of this book when you picked it up. So, you are now at a place the rhetorical effect wants you to be. Sit back and trust the words of the rest of this book to iron out for you all the terrible things that happen to poor people (who, of course, you care for sacrificially) when you reach out to help them – IF YOU DO IT LIKE LIBERALS!
(Okay. How are those bold type questions looking right about now???)
As a Fox News-watching, “tax-and-spend-liberal” hating, Christian supporter of a self-professed “pussy-grabbing” presidential candidate (supporting him BECAUSE of his claim to be a fiscal conservative who hates liberals)… I AM HOOKED!
This expert “had me at ‘hello,'” or at least at “the federal government made this mistake for decades….” (page 12).
Oh yeah! I am willing to overlook a lot of garbage to champion someone who can claim to represent Jesus while advising AGAINST giving money to the poor!!!
Yes! Preach it!!! Brutha!!!!
AMEN! & Hallelujah!!!
Preface (pages 13-18)
The opening sentence remarks on what surely all of us already know – America is RICH. However, the next sentence, in contrast to both what we know and America’s wealth, we are told that 40% of earth’s population lives on less than $2/day. (No footnotes or citation of any kind for this figure, but it sounds like a figure I have heard elsewhere. Still, I don’t have their source for this, meaning despite all the credentials and expertise, the academic excellence of this book is a bit overhyped by the rhetorical effect.)
Thankfully, though, the next paragraph (the second one in the preface) cites Scripture for us! It’s the same two citations we saw in the foreword, but this time the 1st John 3 passage actually gets quoted: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
Great question! But then it is in the Bible… so…
I gotta say, to my way of thinking, this text (and the other one cited too) don’t bode well for the overall thesis of When Helping Hurts. We are gonna need our expert (and/or the cronies he endorses who actually produce this book) to explain it (them) away with exegetical magic or something.
Yes. The very next sentence (which opens the next paragraph) says: “Of course, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ recipe for how each Christian should respond to this biblical mandate” (page 14).
Oh… so… we will just pull the rug out from under this “biblical mandate” JUST LIKE THAT???
Got a verse that tells us we can simply presume there are not “one-size-fits-all recipes”?
Okay. As put, that may not be fair, but we are playing fast and loose with this notion suddenly.
And anyway, isn’t it quite odd to call a question a “mandate”?
Yeah. Go look at that “biblical mandate” again. It’s not like John just issued a command. He asked a question. A loaded question, sure, but a question nonetheless, and Corbett and Fikkert called it a “mandate.”
Don’t get me wrong here. I think the question has the force of a mandate alright, but I would expect them to make a case FOR that idea first before they just assert it. And then once a mandate is discerned, I would expect them not to shortchange it.
Let’s think it through…
I mean, the implied answer to St. John’s question is: It’s not. Meaning, the love of God is not in someone who has material possessions, sees his brother in need, and has no pity on him. If we turn the whole verse into a statement instead of a questions, THAT IS THE STATEMENT.
There is another assumption at work in the verse too:
IF you have what your brother needs, then the appropriate thing to do is to SHARE IT with him!
The passage itself leaves us no other conclusions. If you came to another conclusion, you would have to incorporate other statements (hopefully from Scripture) to fill in the gap between this “mandate” and your other conclusion. However, if you get this wrong, then it becomes clear you do NOT HAVE THE LOVE OF GOD IN YOU, so be very careful as you proceed to your alternate conclusions.
So, if we want to make a command a guideline (OR DARE WE CALL IT A “MANDATE”) out of this passage which started as a loaded question, but we transformed it into a statement, but now we want to state it as a mandate, then it appears we must put it like this:
When those of you who have material possession see your brother suffering need, then you must share your abundance with him or else the LOVE of God is not in you!
And actually this mandate resonates quite nicely with a number of other passages in the Bible (passages conveniently overlooked by Corbett and Fikkert at this juncture), and there seems to be something very much like a “one-size-fits-all” (at least it fits all those who have material possessions) mandate!
…not just a silly “recipe” (a word whose rhetorical impact belittles and ridicules the idea!)
Oh man! We are only on page 14 of When Helping Hurts, and already we have the book telling us: “Of course” you can blow off the biblical mandate to share your wealth with the poor! Trust us. We are experts telling your selfish butt exactly what your Republican ears want to hear – as long as you don’t think it through too carefully!
(some of that is in the small print)
OF COURSE, Corbett and Fikkert are NOT gonna put it in those words exactly. Nor do I believe they actually mean to shortchange the Bible. But that is exactly what they do, whether intentional or not. And here is the real IRONY: in so doing, they are like a self-fulfilling prophecy with their whole thesis. They say we do harm by sharing our wealth with the needy even though that is exactly NOT our aim. Yet that appears to be exactly what they do by inventing this worry.
“Of course, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ recipe [mixed metaphor, btw] for how each Christian should respond to this biblical mandate.
With these words, the authors launch into a page full of diversionary statements about all the different institutional ways one might help the poor – drawing the critical eye away from the fact that it’s all a smoke screen hiding from view the mandate just alluded to and abandoned.
Seriously, go read the page for yourself. There are many, many, many different ways to serve the poor, according to page 14, but not a “one-size-fits-all recipe” for fulfilling the “biblical mandate” to share your wealth with the needy. And when you factor in the general message of this book overall – a vital part of which is to direct readers NOT to give their wealth to the poor – you gotta ask how such incongruity can go unnoticed.
Well, you gotta employ diversionary tactics and this page is a good example of that.
The Scope (pages 14-15)
The next section of the preface starts with LARGE PRINT/ALL CAPS heading that says: THE SCOPE OF THIS BOOK.
As discussed above, they now reiterate all the diverse ways to serve, and then boil them down and suggest that the offerings here will be good for the “typical church,” but is applicable to “a wide range of settings” – particularly “non-profit organizations and individuals.” Basically, this book is good for everybody. And at the end of this section, they describe each of the 3 main parts of the book.
However, on the way to these points, our authors say this: “… each of us is responsible at some level in helping our congregation to be everything Scripture calls it to be, including fulfilling its biblical mandate to care for the poor” (pages 14-15).
What exactly is meant by this statement?
What is meant by “some level”???
Does this sound like Scripture? … to be responsible at some level?
So, “at some level” we should be “helping our congregation to be everything Scripture calls it to be….”
This sounds good – almost.
“Some level” sounds a little loose and ill-defined on the surface of things, but congregations being “everything Scripture calls [them] to be” sounds… well… it sounds Scriptural!
This is, of course, WHAT I WANT US TO BE – SCRIPTURAL!!! Thus it appears we are on the right track. So far, so good!
So where is the Scripture for this? What exactly is “everything Scripture calls the congregation to be”?
Do our authors give us ANY sense of definition for this? How about an actual verse?
Is this book, which really is all about picking apart more traditional approaches to charity and assistance given to the poor going to allow itself so much ill-defined blanket statements?
I mean, by the end of the page they have lumped nonprofit organizations and individuals in with the church as their target audience. As if everything God wants from his church is just interchangeable with nonprofit organizations? This word is going to be Scriptural “at some level” is it not? But the message is not unique to the church. Still the church is addressed here too, and we want it to be “everything Scripture calls it to be,” but I’m starting to think both the church and the Word of God are getting obscured “at some level” by the rhetoric and diversionary considerations.
Let’s quote some more:
“Moreover, we believe the local church has a unique role to play in poverty alleviation, and we are delighted to see the recent resurgence in church-based, holistic ministry to the poor both at home and abroad. At the same time, we are grieved when we see churches using poverty alleviation strategies that are grounded in unbiblical assumptions about the nature of poverty and that violate “best practice” methodologies developed by theorists and practitioners over the course of many decades” (page 15).
OH MAN! Where do I start?
“Moreover, we believe…”
The very next words IF THEY ARE REPRESENTED IN SCRIPTURE AT ALL would better be cited from Scripture rather than standing on the foundation of what Corbett and Fikkert believe.
Why do I care what Corbett and Fikkert believe? I bet you have some mistaken beliefs (or do you really think you have life all figured out?) and from time to time you find those mistaken beliefs challenged. When that happens, you probably struggle to make appropriate changes in your life and worldview so as to reflect your new belief.
THAT NEVER HAPPENS?
However, one of the things I BELIEVE, and if you think about it, I bet you do too, is that I can trust God’s Word, the Bible, to guide all my beliefs.
So why doesn’t this book appeal to Scripture at this point?
If there is a Scripture to reference which will illustrate or form a foundation for the assertion these authors want to make, then it will be appropriate to cite it here and very weak not to cite it.
Go read Joshua Jipp’s book on Hospitality. You won’t find him making any assertions based on “what [he] believes,” though no doubt he believes all of his own assertions. But he will rely on Scripture for his assertions (the only exception being his use of Clement, which is both the weakest part of his book AND is buttressed with Scripture in the end too, anyway).
Of course, if you what you want to assert is not Scriptural, then you need to dress up the rhetorical force of your whole presentation, maybe lay out your credentials as an expert, pepper a few Bible verses here and there (hopefully some of which appear appropriately cited and dealing with context), and then Evangelicals who like the way your assertions SEEM to be biblical and also friendly to our political views will buy up your book and promote it among friends!
But maybe I am being unfair. Let’s see if the proof is in the pudding or not.
What EXACTLY is it that “we believe”?
“We believe the local church has a unique role to play in poverty alleviation…” (page 15).
A “unique role”???
But the end of this very page in the book (no wait… in the very next paragraph…) these authors will find “the concepts, principles, and interventions described in this book are applicable for a wide range of settings”!
So, why on earth do the authors waste paper and bother to tell us they believe there is a “unique role” for the “local church”?
I believe it is because rhetorically speaking the sentence just sounds both SMART and SPIRITUAL, like the words of a caring expert in ministry to the poor. And if it’s dressed up in all this rhetorical effect, readers are unlikely to notice how unbiblical all of this really is in the final analysis.
Yeah… I BELIEVE that, and if you are honest, you have to admit that my assertion does make sense of the facts.
Let’s TEST this belief a moment.
If we turn to Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-37 IN THE BIBLE, we will in fact discover a VERY UNIQUE ROLE that the church there does in fact play in poverty alleviation! But it is a role that will not work at all for nonprofit organizations or individuals (unless they are really rich and willing to get rid of it) AND will be rejected by a wide range of settings … INCLUDING THIS BOOK! Yes, When Helping Hurts is all about rejecting this unique role for the local church as depicted in THE BIBLE!
The fact of the matter is that according to THE BIBLE the local church (at least in Jerusalem at that time) lived in a way that looks suspiciously communist to us modern types. And that is VERY, VERY, VERY, EXTREMELY LIBERAL! Something no self-respecting, American Evangelical would want to be caught dead considering… not even if God says it.
(Think I am still just nit-picking?)
Well… let’s look again at this last part of the paragraph (which I already copied above):
“…we are grieved when we see churches using poverty-alleviation strategies that are grounded in unbiblical assumptions about the nature of poverty and that violate ‘best practice’ methodologies developed by theorists and practitioners over the course of many decades” (page 15 again).
Yeah. “We are grieved” when it’s “unbiblical.”
Did you catch that?
And yet look at the REST OF THAT SAME SENTENCE!
What is biblical about “best practice methodologies” or “theorists and practitioners” from recent “decades” – even if there are many of them???
I mean, right in the middle of a lament over unbiblical matters, these authors rhetorically smuggle all manner of unbiblical standards right into your trust in their expertise!
Talk to me about “FAKE NEWS”!
This book promotes FAKE GOSPEL!
Think I’m being harsh?
No matter the motivation (whether honest mistake or outright deceit) of these authors, they are painting themselves in biblical brush strokes (rhetorically), but they are actively turning your eye anywhere except to the unique role of the local church in the Bible.
not only that, but I personally have witnessed first-hand, enthusiasts of this book quite literally throw homeless church members out of the church building and send them into the freezing winter night saying, “I don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here.”
So.. Yeah! I’m harsh with this garbage!