Steven Curtis Chapman, Godliness, and The Death of Squeaky Clean

The church today has a problem. Well, actually, it has many problems, but we’re just here today to discuss one of them, and that is the problem that modern Christians seem to have something against “good boys.” You know what I’m talking about. There was a time when the wholesome, the upright and the clean-cut were held up as admirable examples, but today, that admiration has been replaced by aversion. Godly people are no longer admired for their godliness. Instead, they are stereotyped and labeled as “goody two-shoes” by fellow Christians.

This prejudicial attitude manifests itself in a variety of ways, some more vitriolic than others. Generally it comes out as sheer hatred among the more liberal Christian types. Yet it can manifest itself in subtle ways as well. In a sense, the latter is more pernicious because when it’s worded in the right way, it can hold a certain attraction for more conservative Christians who might not be so easily taken in by its cruder forms.

I most recently encountered one of these subtle manifestations from someone for whom I have  a lot of respect—Andrew Peterson. Andrew is one of the most gifted Christian songwriters in the industry today, and even though he may not be the best tunesmith, he has a wonderful way with words that recalls the work of Rich Mullins or Paul Simon (two writers he’s repeatedly cited as major influences). So before I launch into this post, I wish it known that I am a big AP fan, and I think his heart is in the right place. What’s unfortunate is that he has picked up some misconceptions about Scripture and its application to the Christian life, including that aversion to “squeaky-clean-ness.” This came out in a piece called “What I Learned From SCC,” a tribute to Steven Curtis Chapman that he wrote a few days ago. The piece was inspired by the fact that he had just completed a tour with Steven and was moved to express his gratitude. I was excited to read it. But as my eye flew down the page, this paragraph caught my eye, where Andrew talked about his expectations before meeting and working with Steven:

… I’ve never heard a single negative story about the guy. I’ve been in Nashville for 15 years now, and, well, you tend to hear less-than-flattering stories about folks from time to time (I’m sure there are a few about me floating around out there), but I have yet to hear one of those about Steven. What that might lead a rascal like me to conclude is that either a) Steven is so squeaky-clean he must be hard to like or b) he’s a complete wreck and he’s hiding it. I didn’t realize until this tour was underway that there’s a third option. Here it is: Steven is a wreck, he’s not hiding it, and because of the mighty presence of Jesus in his life, grace abounds to those around him.

Now watch what Andrew did here. He equivocated—he took the phrase “he’s a wreck” and introduced it with one implied meaning (skeletons in the closet, un-confessed sin, etc.), then turned around and used it again with a different implied meaning (broken sinner who needs the grace of God). Probably he thought it was profound, but really it’s just misleading (not to mention linguistically sloppy). Yet the wording of this proposed “third option” reveals quite a bit. Why, for example, did he not say it the other way around: “Steven really is squeaky clean, he’s not hard to like, and  because of that, I realized that I’m needlessly prejudiced against the ‘squeaky clean’ types”? It’s because “squeaky clean” in his mind automatically carries negative connotations—Pharisaism, pietism—rather than pure, real, honest-to-goodness wholesomeness. The solution he found allowed him to keep holding onto that prejudice. Here is an even more direct excerpt from a little later in this piece:

Everyone I know in Nashville who knows Steven has said to me something like, “I love Steven. He’s a good man.” But from the first week of the tour I discovered that Steven isn’t a good man. He’s as sinful as the rest of us [my emphasis]. He wears his weakness on his sleeve. He’s quick to share his pain and his struggle. That doesn’t make him mopey–he’s quick to share his joy, too. But what’s so wonderfully subversive about the Gospel is that our ability to honestly bear our grief and woundedness just makes room for God’s grace to cast light on all that shadow; it makes room for us to love each other.

Just as a quick aside here, don’t you love it when people blur the lines between sin on the one hand and general “brokenness” on the other? Godly people constantly suffer pain and grief through no fault of their own. In fact, Steven is a prime example of that. But even waiving that little issue, this whole paragraph just comes off as a long way of saying, “Phew!” Though of course that’s not how Andrew looks at it.  I think his idea is, “Hey, we’re all sinners in the eyes of God, and nobody is any ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than anyone else, so we might as well not pretend by calling anybody ‘a good man.’”

But that pretty much defines “non sequitur.” Yes, we’re all sinners, and…? Let’s put it this way: Mother Theresa needed Jesus just as much as Hitler did, but even so, one of them murdered 6 million people and the other lived a life devoted to caring for the poor. Now kids, which of these is not like the other? I am not preaching works salvation here. I am saying that moral relativism is the bane of clear thought. We can’t pretend that there is no difference between people, and it can be wholly legitimate (and not idolatrous, as Andrew seems to imply at one point in the piece) to say that Mother Theresa was “good” and Hitler was “bad.” Moreover, we repeatedly see in the Scriptures that God delights in those who glorify Him, and He is angered by those who despise Him. Man demonstrates his love for God by keeping His commandments. This truth resounds through Old and New Testament alike.

“But Jesus came to abolish religion!” No he didn’t. Get off of Youtube and open your Bible to Matthew 23:23.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

What did Jesus say? Did he say “Tithing is stupid. Forget about it. It’s all a heart issue”? No. He said that tithing and other “externals” by themselves, when they are not accompanied by mercy and faith, are empty. It does not follow from this that there is anything wrong with “keeping the rules.” On the contrary—it’s both/and. So in other words, you can wear a suit to church on Sunday, watch your language and listen to praise songs while still being unsaved. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to dress like a bum and swear like a sailor.

Now, on an individual level, people can have a genuine rebirth of faith where they look back on their life and say, “I have been hiding behind the appearances while my heart was really selfish, prideful, and far from God.” I have heard testimonies like this from Steve Green and others who share similar reflections. This can be wholly appropriate and biblical. The problem comes when we move out from the individual level and make sweeping generalizations for Christian society as a whole, to the point where some Christians automatically suspect other Christians who seem to “have it all together,” as if there’s something “not right” about that. Or they simply feel a distaste for it. “Ugh… too perfect. Too nice. Too Mayberry.”

Now, this is obviously not Andrew Peterson’s attitude towards Steven Curtis Chapman. But that’s because he’s convinced himself that a proper understanding of grace involves an aversion to all things he deems “legalistic,” therefore “messy” is better than “[squeaky] clean.” And since he doesn’t have an aversion to Steven (to the contrary, he loves him and enjoys being with him), Steven must not be “one of those types,” where “those types” means “the annoying squeaky clean types.” Because you see, under Andrew’s view of Christianity, it’s downright unbiblical to say, in the words of the old poem, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

And yet, for all that, I believe Andrew Peterson is wholly sincere. His tribute came from a full heart. I’m quite sure he wasn’t saying to himself at the beginning of it all, “Well, it would be really awkward if Steven were just a great guy because that would make me feel inferior, and I’m embarrassed by that.” But subconsciously, I think it’s the psychological process that leads Christians like him to their larger spiritual conclusions about grace and godliness.

Is Steven Curtis Chapman a sinner saved by grace? Yes! So are we all. But is Steven Curtis Chapman also a godly, upright, and yes, good man who is walking in righteousness before the Lord? Yes! So we should all aspire to be.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Steven Curtis Chapman, Godliness, and The Death of Squeaky Clean

  1. David Pitman

    One of your best posts! Well said.

  2. Melissa Selby

    As a Christian who was once described as “goody two-shoes” by a fellow Christian and, as a result, strayed a little off that road to the narrow gate in an effort to eradicate that “negative” perception, I can empathize with what you’re saying here. Two weeks ago today, I lost a long-time friend who never used vulgar language, would never have dreamed of drinking an alcoholic beverage, always walked the walk and talked the talk, and was generally perceived to be almost faultless — the epitome of “squeaky-clean”. By today’s standards, because she had come to know the Lord early in her life and therefore had never lived a so-called “wrecked” existence prior to her salvation, her witness would be considered more or less invalid. Yet this lovely lady was one of the most important influences in my entire life, and I will always remember her wise counsels and sweet spirit; her walk with the Lord is one I can only hope to emulate. Judging a Christian, either pro or con, by his (or her) apparent lack of so-called baggage is every bit as unjustified as judging him by a less-than-savory past. It doesn’t matter if someone has always walked the straight and narrow path, or found the right road after a long detour on the way that leads to destruction. What counts is the honesty and sincerity of his Christian witness — by whatever route he came to get there.

    • Amen! I know, it really bugs me when Christians try to imply that everybody’s road to heaven is “zig-zaggy.” Your example was perfect, and I’m sure we could all share similar stories of people like that.

      • quartet-man

        True dat. I saw they had the Oaks’ version on one of the sites you listen to music on, you should listen to it so you hear the superior version. :)

  3. I think part of the problem is that “squeaky clean” or “goody two shoes” often implies “holier than thou.” To say someone is a “goody two-shoes,” at least in my experience, often relates to someone who views themselves as being “above” everyone else.

    Ever since the 60′s and 70′s, the idea that “Jesus will accept you as you are” has taken on a whole new meaning. Yes, Jesus WILL accept you just as you are, but people let it lie there; they don’t take the extra step of, “Well, I want to give Jesus my best.” That’s when it becomes complacency.

    • quartet-man

      Yeah, people want to use God’s grace as an excuse to live as they want to live. They don’t want to really change or have God interrupt their “good time”, they just want the grace so they can go to Heaven.

      • quartet-man

        As far as goody-two shoes, I think your definition is part of it Kyle, but I think it is more broad. It is probably used more for people who don’t do things the person calling them that does. That line is different for different people, but generally I think they are seen as not doing things the person considers “normal” or “okay”, I had already thought of the song “A Little More Like Me (The Crucifixion)” this morning and that fits well here.

  4. “A Little More Like Me” is an interesting message. I have thought about using it this year for Easter to put the human aspect in context.

    • I hadn’t heard that song before. Thanks for mentioning it—it captures what I’m saying perfectly! Quartet-man, I agree, and that’s my whole point. Yes, the line is different for different people, and we could think of examples where it really becomes absurd, but for ordinary things like not smoking, not cussing, etc., it’s sheer selfishness and snobbery for people like that to be stereotyped by fellow believers.

      • quartet-man

        You’re welcome. Which version did you hear, the Oaks’ or Kenny Rogers’? It is interesting to note that the Oaks changed the line “the way we all got drunk last night” to “got down last night” because Oaks’ member Duane Allen doesn’t drink and didn’t want to sing it that way. (If I recollect correctly).

      • I listened to Kenny’s version. Good story about the Oaks—funny how with all the fuss over their crossing over into secular country, you never hear them getting credit for things like that. :)

    • quartet-man

      Kyle, I did mention it and used it as a theme in a newsletter article one month here at church. :)

  5. Pingback: Perfection Is Not Boring | Southern Gospel Yankee

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