An examination of what a personality cult is. The story of Mao Zedong and the personality cult he had in China. The power of his personality cult in the Cultural Revolution, and how his followers wrecked havoc in China. This will be examined for historical lessons as we examine the personality cult of John Piper. The influence he has, and how his followers have wrecked havoc, hurting churches and harming people’s faith. Is there much difference between the personality cult of Mao Zedong and John Piper? My contention will be no…in the end there are many similarities. Also a quick examination into the personality cult of CJ Mahaney.
“If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.”
Quoting Kevin DeYoung:] “Here are the two most important things you need to know about the rise of New Calvinism: it’s not new and it’s not about Calvin. Of course some of the conferences are new. The John Piper packed ipods are new. The neo-reformed blog blitz is new. The ideas, however, are not. ‘Please God, don’t let the young, restless and reformed movement be another historically ignorant, self absorbed, cooler-than-thou fad.'”
Greg Dutcher (page 16) Killing Calvinism
Before I start let me state that I have spent a great deal of time studying history in the college and graduate level earning a BA and also a MA. In this post I am talking about the cult of personality. I am talking about a situation where people imitate or so adhere to the leader that they are following. Is John Piper responsible for the deaths of millions? Absolutely not, I want to be clear this is a discussion on the cult of personality. Next point…I dedicate this post to HUG. I hope he has fun with it, especially with his knowledge of Communism, totalitarian systems, and George Orwell. Now that is out of the way we need to start by asking the following question; what is a personality cult? When I studied history in college and grad school I heard the term personality cult to describe individuals like Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic of China and Kim Il Sung of North Korea. Actually one thing I find deeply fascinating is how Nikita Khrushchev rebuked the personality cult of Joseph Stalin before the 20th Party Congress on February 25, 1956. That speech by Khrushchev is listed as one of the greatest speeches made in the 20th century. Here is how a personality cult is defined. A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized, heroic, and at times worshipful image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. Sociologist Max Weber developed a tripartite classification of authority; the cult of personality holds parallels with what Weber defines as “charismatic authority”.
Little Red Book of Chairman Mao and the Personality Cult Surrounding Him
On October 1, 1949 Mao Zedong stood in Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China. He would be their leader, the most populous country in the world went Communist. I am not going to dive too deeply into Chinese history but one thing to know about is that Mao launched the Great Leap Forward in 1958 which in the end was a massive economic failure. In short the Great Leap Forward was an attempt to turn the Chinese economy from an agrarian into an industrial one. It resulted in one of the largest exterminations in human history with millions starving to death. The Great Leap Forward stained Mao’s name and resulted in him being marginalized. In a few years time Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 with the goal to restore his name, and in the course of time it would tear at the fabric of China which haunts it until this day. Mao was concerned China was drifting in a revisionist direction and would follow the lead of the Soviet Union. Mao’s concern was that China remain ideologically pure so he gathered a group of radicals to include his wife Jiang Qing and Lin Biao who was the defense minister in an effort to reassert his authority. Lin Biao encouraged the creation of what was known as the “Little Red Book” of Mao’s quotations. The “Little Red Book” as it became known in the west consisted of 33 chapters and had 427 quotations of Chairman Mao. This book was printed in the millions and distributed across China. In August of 1966 Mao shut down schools and called on the youth to carry the revolution forward and purge impure elements form Chinese societies. Chinese youth were mobilized in mass and formed groups known Red Guards and they attacked member’s of China’s elderly and intellectual population. During this period many Chinese youth tortured and killed their teachers, while there was contention as to who had the true interpretation of pure Maoist thought. Chinese leadership was removed during the Cultural Revolution with President Liu Shaoqi who eventually died in prison. The Red Guards brought many Chinese cities to the brink of anarchy. Against all this the Chinese economy plunged. In 1969 Lin Biao was declared to be Mao’s successor, but border clashes with Soviet troops, combined with imposing martial law resulted in Mao concerned about a power grab. Lin Biao then fled trying to get to the Soviet Union. However, his plane crashed in Mongolia. The division of the government led to many Chinese citizens to feel disillusioned about the direction of Mao’s “revolution.” What many Chinese realized is that the revolution was not about purity of ideology, or “purifying China”…instead it was a power grab by Mao to consolidate his power and marginalize his opponents. Mao’s revolution continued but in 1972 he suffered a stroke, and Zhou Enlai worked at restoring education. Likewise in 1972 Enlai learned he had cancer. in 1976 the leader of the People’s Republic of China died, and his death brought to a close the Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four was purged out of leadership and Deng Xiaoping emerged as the leader of China.
The effects of the Cultural Revolution were deep. It is estimated that 1.5 million people were killed while other Chinese were imprisoned, had property seized, tortured or humiliated. The results of the Cultural Revolution have hung over and haunted China – even to this day. Here is one story of one 15 year old who turned in his mother over to the Communist state where she was executed by firing squad. There are other stories of former Red Guards trying to atone for their past. As a result of the Cultural Revolution many Chinese lost faith in their government.
Personality Cult of John Piper
There are many similarities in the Neo-Reformed movement spearheaded by John Piper that I see in the late Chairman Mao. This is one of the reasons why I believe history can be a great teacher. We are to learn from the past, as the past can help educate and help us avoid past mistakes. The greatest tragedy I believe that can befall a nation-state or people group is when they lose their history and forget what obstacles they overcame, and mistakes that were made. This is one of the reasons why I appreciate and love history so much and find it rich. Yes in some cases career options can be limited but when you study history it does teach you a lot about critical thinking and past historical movements. Plus I find it amazing…as I never would have imagined that all the history I studied in the end would help me to dissect religious movements such as the one led by John Piper. Resuming the discussion on John Piper and the Neo-Reformed one thing to remember as we venture to examine John Piper is that for many Neo-Calvinists Piper is above reproach. For many people he is not to be questioned, analyzed, or looked upon in any other way except awe and wonder. John Piper for many people is the final word. His word carries more weight than the Bible and for others he is the 67th book of the Bible. For some individuals in the Neo-Calvinist camp John Piper is God as he is the fourth member of the trinity and he walks on water. In China Chairman Mao was the final authority, and for many Neo-Calvinist John Piper is the final word. Another similarity is in the behavior of John Piper’s followers. Like I touched on above Mao inspired and sent off the youth to carry forward the Cultural Revolution. They wrecked havoc and damage in China. Today in many Christian churches many of John Piper’s adherents are doing the same thing. Inspired by John Piper they go forward wrecking havoc, causing needless conflict and hammering people. Its fundamentalism in many ways…but like the late Chairman of the Central Committee of China, John Piper’s followers are doing the exact same thing. I remember when I was in my faith crisis I showed up at McLean Presbyterian I briefly spoke to one of the pastors there. When I told him what I had done to my Mom after her battle with pancreatic cancer where she amazingly and for some unknown reason survived this Pastor looked at me and his jaw dropped. This pastor at McLean Presbyterian briefly talked about the harm and danger that John Piper followers do in Christianity. For the record I should state that as I track posts that I have written and what people respond to from my online journal, my entry called “My Mother’s Pancreatic Cancer, John Piper and Me” is the most looked at post that keeps getting read. Like the “Red Guards” in Mao’s China, many John Piper followers go forward pointing out heresy as they see it, and helping to hijack churches and enforce the line in the process. Many youth in the Cultural Revolution in China carried around the “Little Red Book” of the sayings of Chairman Mao. I would strongly suggest for many Neo-Calvinists their equivalent of the “Little Red Book” is John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Life.” The other factor is that many of John Piper’s followers are known for tribalism. They create and enforce it well and create bubbles that cause deep division. Or they divide people along secondary issues of “doctrine” which become primary.
One of the main reasons why I oppose celebrity pastors is for the following issue. They stunt the growth of Christians and in the long run do great harm to people. What deeply bothers me is that many of John Piper’s followers have not wrestled with the hard issues. They have not wrestled with issues like the problem of evil or other difficult issues when it comes to faith. All too often what has happened is that many people take the lazy way out. They read John Piper’s books, adopt John Piper’s view and as a by-product you have all these people from the late teens until early 30’s who walk around spitting out what John Piper says and regurgitate his theology. They know what John Piper thinks…but do they know what they believe? Many of John Piper’s followers are in for a day of reckoning when something happens in their life and their
theology (correction the theology of John Piper) that they rest on will implode. For me it was my Mother’s pancreatic cancer that taught me this point so deeply. This is part of the reason why I am grateful for my faith crisis, in the end it taught me to wrestle with difficult topics and ideas; and many Christians don’t do that today. One more point is that since John Piper, like Chairman Mao is the final authority when is he ever wrong? Mao couldn’t admit that he was wrong about state policy. Likewise when can John Piper admit when he is wrong? He can’t! What type of Christian leader acts in such a way? John Piper helps create Mark Driscoll in Seattle and even touts his theology and invites him to Desiring God. When Mark Driscoll goes down in flames he can’t even own his mistakes and say, “You know what church? I screwed up….I encouraged many of you to read Pastor Mark here at Desiring God and I was wrong. Mark should never have been a Pastor as he is not qualified to be one. I made a mistake in that I helped create a mess in Seattle. I carry a lot of responsibility for this mess and I want to make it right.” So again the man who is known and adored by many who can teach by example commits an epic spectacular fail. In that process he denies the church a lesson in repentance and owning his mistake. Plus John Piper has the gall to talk about what being a man is? What type of man refuses to own his mistakes? This is why I believe John Piper to be a coward. At the end he’s the center of a personality cult who hammers Greg Boyd, and allegedly threatened his employment at Bethel. Plus he also hammers and guilts men into their flaws instead of teaching them grace. In the very end John Piper talks about being a man…he is not a man…John Piper I would suggest is a coward. Why do I say this? Because a real man doesn’t encourage women to submit to domestic abuse like John Piper once did. That is a disgrace, and that is outright wrong. These are difficult words to write and let me state that I believe quite firmly that I am human. I could be wrong in my analysis and if I am wrong then I welcome correction. My identity is not wrapped up in being right, or being correct. If I am wrong I will admit it. But as I wind down this segment on John Piper let me say that as I have studied history I see many parallels between the personality cult of Chairman Mao and John Piper. Both commend huge influence, while both have inspired the youth to be the “Red Guard” in their respective way. Both can’t own their mistakes and both are addicted to power. Both have caused needless division and both have destroyed families. Chairman Mao did so in a physical way in ordering people to beat up, killed, or thrown in prison. John Piper has not done that physically as I stressed at the start of this post but I would suggest he has destroyed many people spiritually, thrown people into their own prisons, and in some cases is responsible for destroying some individuals faith.
Other Examples of Personality Cults
John Piper is far from being the only Neo-Calvinist leader that a personality cult has developed around. CJ Mahaney is another one, actually watch this video on an occasion of the “mantle of power” being transferred from CJ Mahaney of Covenant Life Church to Joshua Harris.
Now while what took place at Covenant Life Church may not be in the same spectacle of what takes place daily in North Korea..is it really far off? When people in North Korea get haircuts to look like the leader Kim Jong Un, while in Neo-Calvinist churches some people are shaving their head to look like CJ Mahaney is that any different? What is all the more disturbing is that while men are getting haircuts in North Korea in response to an order, and follow along, some members of Sovereign Grace Ministries shaved their head voluntarily to follow their leader. When in North Korea they hold spectacular celebrations where they parade around Pyongyang holding pictures of their past leaders such as Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il …is it that far off when at Covenant Life Church people march around on stage holding a poster of CJ Mahaney? Really how far off is that? I would suggest the principles behind both are similar and what is driving the worship of the head of state in North Korea is similar to the crowd of Covenant Life Church worshipping CJ Mahaney. The main part of this post deals with John Piper and looking at Mao Zedong…but CJ Mahaney also deserves a brief mention. Again this illustrates the need to practice discernment. With that I will close with a video of a celebrations in Pyongyang of the Dear Leader followed by the Pet Shop Boys singing Go West.