Much like I did with seven posts on When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert, I now copy from my chicken-scratch composition book notes my initial reactions to Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity. If you are not already familiar with my reaction to Corbett and Fikkert, scroll through my posts from July 2020 and find a seven part series. If you are not familiar with Lupton’s book, please consider my review here as you read it. I think you will find it is NOT all it should be and not fit for praise by the church.
From notes jotted down on March 11, 2019
This vol. deals primarily and specifically with my initial thoughts and reactions concerning Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton particularly, but with an eye on the other book When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert AND their collaborative project with Lupton called “Seeking Shalom” – a web-based seminar I attended a year ago as facilitated by my home church [here remaining nameless].
To be forthright and openly honest, I never actually read Toxic Charity before this weekend, though I have read excerpts and reviews on the web, and visited with others who have read it. So, I did have familiarity with it all along, but only just now gave it my full attention.
The general argument it makes was just as I expected. It was really no surprise – not any new kind of evidence for its case which I never saw or heard elsewhere before. Thus, the book pretty much met expectations.
Toxic Charity does not present itself or the author as scholarly. According to my findings on the web, Lupton has a Ph.D in Psychology, but I saw no sign of that in his book. Rather his book offers no footnotes at all, and any citations he makes are “in text.” Thus, his book appears to be written for popular consumption.
Lupton refers to his expertise in inner-city work with the poor and claims to be the founder of his organization FCS Urban Ministries – one of the few indications he actually speaks/works from a religious/Christian perspective.
Toxic Charity was quite easy to read. I found Lupton’s book to have much stronger language and consistency than When Helping Hurts, but way less effort to appear biblical/theological. By my count, Lupton only appeals to Scripture SIX TIMES in 191 pages. That is a bit interpretive on my part because he only cites the passage he alludes to in 3 of those cases. [That’s only 3 Bible citations in the whole book!] He very colloquially tells us “Jesus teaches” or “Jesus’ directive” and so forth without citation in other cases.
By my count, there were SIX TIMES Lupton made theological assertions to back up his position, but did so with no citation of either Scripture or the teachings of any theologians. Thus, my count of these citations and allusions is highly interpretive of the evidence. I noted a couple of cases that to my mind SEEMED theological in nature, but were of such a liberal judgment call that I decided not to count them. I sense that if Lupton wants to credit God (or God’s Word) with the backing for his arguments, he can make that explicit, and I was already being generous to count the SIX I did.
That said, Lupton’s rhetorical effect is very convicting. Over all, with few exceptions, his arguments are reasonable, compelling, and consistent. Most of the evidence he offers is wise and compelling. In fact, I must admit that if I did not have biblical/theological reasons to object to his work (and I must temper some of my objections even there – by that, I mean disentangle them from some complexities of his arguments), then I would find Lupton’s version of the When Helping Hurts program to be more compelling than Corbett and Fikkert’s.
The problem is that Lupton almost flat out ignores the Bible and good theology and the bits he uses are hardly more than decoration, or cosmetics, for his offerings.
In fact, even worse than that – actually – he alludes at one point to Luke 6:30 without citing it, even acknowledges its opposition to his general thesis (in an indirect way) and then just functionally drops it without making a case for how it should be understood differently – a way of arguing his point without detracting from God’s Word. But, it seems, Lupton just doesn’t even care.
I find this deeply troubling.
It is clear that Lupton wants to address the church and people of faith. The subtitle (How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help) is indication enough. It’s not clear that he speaks from within – except that the name of his organization suggests it and his allusion to his own church life briefly would also suggest it. The final chapter of the book is specifically addressed to the church and parachurch ministry organizations. But in today’s world, I can easily imagine political pressure groups of secular persuasions seeking to address and/or join forces with churches and faith groups. Also there are partnerships between faith-based organizations and both private and governmental agencies, and esp. considering the overlap in outreach ministry to the poor with social work, I would think conversations in books and articles between people of faith and secular groups along these lines might be fairly normal. Meanwhile, Lupton shows no understanding of the difference between the church and other organizations whether faith-based or not. Thus, Lupton’s lax appeal to Scripture leaves me wondering about his commitment to God and God’s Word.
At any rate, I do object to this book, not to every single particle of it, but certainly to the overall thesis and several related matters. And despite it’s compelling reasonability and consistency, I object based almost entirely on biblical/theological grounds – grounds that Lupton mostly ignores. And yet, I am inclined to think there are issues Lupton raises, and raises in ways, that should be addressed.
Two features of Lupton’s book that stand out to me as in need of profound refutation are 1) his concern that “dependency” is a bad thing and 2) his insistence that making loans to be repaid is a good thing whereas the giving of FREE GIFTS is a bad thing. I might quibble on some other points, but I am not convinced at this moment to chase those lesser bunny trails considering how cumbersome this whole project has become.
HOWEVER, I do feel compelled BY LUPTON no less, to consider/account for/seek solution to/address dynamics like the phenom he calls “religious tourism.” (see page 14) When a mission trip to Tahiti subtly becomes a vacation rather than service to the Gospel, it seems to me the consumerist mentality is running the show alright.
I do not feel compelled to offer a chapter-by-chapter refutation of Toxic Charity like I did with the first part of When Helping Hurts. There are a handful of passages/quotes scattered all through it that I may want to pick on, but actually there is significant overlap in the material offered by Lupton in Toxic Charity and the book When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert. The overlap in the overall thesis – or point of the book – is so much that they are practically redundant at that level. Thus, I expect to concentrate more on When Helping Hurts and thereby address both AND capture a few bits of their joint project “Seeking Shalom” at the same time in that chicken-scratch rather than this one.