Tag Archives: evangelicalism
A Radical Review: The Bad, Pt. 4 (False Dichotomy 5 – God’s Love for Us vs. God’s Love for His Glory)
After 5 posts examining The Really Good and The Good aspects of David Platt’s Radical, we are moving on to some of the less positive aspects o my review. This, too, will take 4 or 5 posts as we examine The Bad and The Really Bad.
- Before we say, “I disagree,” we should be able to say, “I truly understand.” There’s no point in disagreeing with something we haven’t made sure we fully understand. When we disagree prematurely all we’re really saying is, “You’re not going to change my mind; don’t confuse me with the facts.”
- Some people get offended by criticism no matter what. There have been good-critical reviews of Bell’s book. There have been bad-critical reviews of Bell’s book. The trick is to understand the difference, not just throw all criticism together in the trash-heap of “Rob-Bell-Haters.” And the other trick is to be able to take criticism without always seeing it as a personal attack. Criticism, when done correctly, can only make us better people.
- The word “heretic” is almost useless the way we use it. As are the words “orthodox,” “conservative,” and “liberal.” In the end, the way we use these words essentially says more about us than they do about the person we’re criticizing. In the Evangelical world, “heretic” and “liberal” are simply those who disagree with “me.” And “conservative” and “orthodox” are those who happen to agree with me. In other words, we’ve abandoned the actual definitions of these words for uses of these words that are polarizing and promote distrust and misunderstanding instead of understanding. Therefore, our uses of these words make them ultimately useless.
- Some people are heresy hunters. They’re looking for ways to denounce people who don’t agree with them as apostates to the gospel. I attribute this to a messiah-complex whereby they see themselves as the last true Christians on the planet. This kind of elitism is unfortunate and will ultimately lead to their irrelevance in our culture. And this makes me sad because their passion could be beneficial to the kingdom of God.
- Some people are just naïve. People will tack themselves to personalities instead of the gospel. They will defend a person regardless of what they say, simply because they like the person. Rob Bell could’ve denied the gospel and some people would’ve followed him because they love Bell more than the gospel. On the other side, Kevin DeYoung could’ve been an absolute jerk in response to Bell and people will defend him with scripture because they loved his polemics over Paul’s call to unity in I Corinthians.
To all such people, I ask this: Was Rob Bell Crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Kevin DeYoung?
- John 17 is completely ignored by most American Christians. We prefer disunity over unity. We prefer schism to an appreciation of diversity. We prefer ousting people from both heaven and the church over opening our arms as wide as God’s. And, guess what! The world was watching. And you know what they saw? Christians fighting…again. Isn’t it funny how every time we make national media it’s because we’re fighting for, over, or against something? So much for them knowing us by our love and unity.
- We are sheep. This whole saga was a marketing ploy by HarperOne. And it worked. We did exactly what they expected. They, and they alone, are the true winners in this. And boy did they win – last I heard Bell’s book was #6 on Amazon.
- We pastor’s have done a terrible job of teaching our people that the goal of salvation isn’t a good after-life in Heaven, but that Heaven begins in this life….salvation begins in this life. We aren’t waiting for Heaven; we’re co-workers with God bringing Heaven to earth. Until we get this straight, we will continue to misunderstand the gospel.
- Those who use the keys of death and Hell are often trying to unlock the doors of power. Do you want power over a person, a culture, or a movement? Just threaten to unleash Hell against all potential deviants. Not only will you end all rational discussion, but you’ll effectively control both those who are already convinced you’re right AND those who don’t think you’re right, but are afraid of you. People throughout the centuries have believed that the threat of Hell holds the potential to control empires. And they are right…until they are wrong. People can be controlled by the threat of Hell for a short time, but they can’t thrive under the threat of Hell…and sooner or later they will be so desperate for real, thriving life that they won’t be manipulated by fear anymore. The power of the gospel, then, is not in the threat of Hell, but the beauty of Jesus Christ.
- Rob Bell is apparently more of a danger to orthodox Christianity than a tsunami is to the Japanese coastline. Since we’re talking about Hell and all, I find it interesting that in the separation of the sheep from the goats, Jesus is clear that one’s eschatology (doctrine of the Last Things) is not the deciding factor in where people spend eternity, but rather, one’s response to human suffering is. I am saddened by myself and others who followed this saga more closely than we followed the tragedy in Japan, who have fretted over this saga more than we’ve fretted over dead babies in Japan, who have prayed more about Rob Bell than we’ve prayed for God’s presence in Japan. It’s time for me to repent.
Is there anything you’d add to my list?
When I left the Christian security blanket of Hannibal La-Grange College for the supposed secular cesspool of the University of Missouri, I had well-intended friends who were worried about whether my faith would wane in its confidence. While I had no such worries, I without a doubt did wonder what ways I would come out the other end a different man. After all, all worthwhile education ought to transform the student in some way or another.
But although friends articulated such apprehension at my attending a secular school, I actually may have amassed more words of alarm when I departed for seminary. Indeed, I cannot even add up the amount of times I heard the axiom “seminary is cemetery.”
Such outspoken angst in both instances made me wonder if Evangelicals often just don’t have a fear of higher education – as Mark Noll more than hints at in his 1995 book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” where he prophetically calls the American church out on her anti-intellectualism.
But in the end, my concern in this post is to lay those fears to rest. Yes, of course, in my education at both the University of Missouri and Asbury Theological Seminary, my life has been dramatically changed.
Being at Mizzou didn’t ruin my faith – it informed it, fleshed it out, confirmed it, and challenged it to think more deeply about the this-worldly, everyday aspects of my theology. I wouldn’t change my time there for the world. I still engage the world with some of the valuable lenses I was given as a graduate student at Mizzou.
And as a graduating seminary student, I can tell you that my seminary experience has also been anything but death for my spiritual life. Seminary has helped me see the value of orthodox theology and orthodox practice for the everyday things in life. I don’t think anyone who spends any time with me would say that seminary was cemetery for me. In a lot of ways, seminary has brought new life to my Christian walk – new life that will encourage and challenge me throughout the rest of my life.
So if anyone tells you that seminary is a cemetery for good Christians, they are either ignorant or foolish. I don’t doubt that some people have bad seminary experiences. And I don’t doubt that there are bad seminaries out there. But let’s not take the exception to the rule and apply it like it’s a universal axiom.
The Christian faith is not anti-intellectual. The Christian life is a place where, as Asbury says it, “head and heart go hand in hand.”
In light of a few recent articles on the demise of American Christianity, I found this post by Greg Boyd to be extremely thoughtful and right on the mark. My thoughts lined up quite nicely with his as I read the articles he references. While people like Albert Mohler are fighting to maintain Christianity as America’s Civil Religion, Boyd is calling for a distinctive witness that is authentic and not concerned at all with relevance or efficiency. Let me know what you think…
“Don’t Weep For the Demise of American Christianity”
I’ve come across two very interesting and insightful essays this week on the demise of American Christianity. The first is Michael Spencer’s “The coming evangelical collapse” published in the Christian Science Monitor, and the second is Jon Meacham’s “The End of Christian America” published in Newsweek. Meacham discusses the decline of Christianity in America in general while Spencer discusses what he believes is the soon and inevitable demise of Evangelicalism in particular. In this post I’d like to provide a brief overview of both articles (supplemented by some information from Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church (HarperCollins, 2008), and then offer my own assessment of this demise.
The Demise of Christianity
There are many indications that Christianity in America is in rather rapid decline. For example, the percentage of self-identifying Christians has fallen 10 points over the last decade (down to 76 percent). According to a recent Newsweek Poll, the percentage of people who think that America is “a Christian Nation” has dropped 7 percent in the last year (down to 62 percent). And the percent of those who say that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is at a historic low – down to 48 percent (it never dropped below 58 percent until the last few years).
There are indications that conservative Christianity (Evangelicalism) is being hit particularly hard by this downward turn. (See Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation for superb research supporting this claim). While some megachurches continue to grow, the majority of smaller evangelical churches are shrinking (in part because many of their members are migrating to the “full service oriented” model of the megachurches). Yet, there is an over-all net loss of church attenders each year, though this is somewhat concealed by the fact that most conservative churches are reticent to take members off their membership rolls as well as by the tendency of evangelical churches and organizations [especially Southern Baptists, according to Wicker] to grossly exaggerate their numbers (see The Fall of the Evangelical Nation for a full exposé on this trend).
Also significant is the fact that the average age of attendees in conservative churches is rising and there are many indications that the largely personality driven mega-church phenomenon was a “baby-boomer” trend that will likely die with this generation. In light of these and other indications, Spencer goes so far as to predict that ”[w]ithin two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants.” “The end of evangelicalism as we know it,” he argues, “ is close.” More generally, Meacham argues that America is entering into a “post-Christian” epoch.
The Cause of the Decline
What has brought about this decline? The answer to this question is, of course, very complex, but from these essays two factors stand out.
First, as Spencer notes, American evangelical churches have been, to a large degree, gutted by good old fashion American pragmatism. We’ve become preoccupied with being “relevant” and “efficient” at the expense of holding fast to the theological depth of our biblically based traditions. Megachurches in particular are guilty of this – which in part explains why they become megachurches, for relevance and efficiency sell well to baby boomers. (To younger folks, not so much.) Spencer refers to this, quite appropriately, as the “megachurch vacuity.”
Spencer wonders whether “the coming collapse” of Evangelicalism will “get Evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about the loss of substance and power?” He’s not very optimistic, however. While he’s quite sure Evangelicalism will continue to decline, he also somewhat caustically anticipates that “[t]he purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in fine form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church’s problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time.”
A second important factor, which both Spencer and Meacham stress, is that Evangelicals “have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism.” Spencer notes that “[w]e fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.” Even some of the staunchest guards of conservative Evangelicalism are beginning to see this.
For example, Alert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, concedes that “[t]he worst fault of evangelicals in terms of politics over the last 30 years has been an incredible naiveté about politics and politicians and parties.” Manifesting typical Constantinian triumphalism, many conservative American Christians naively thought we could transform American society in a “Christian” direction by acquiring political power to enforce our (self-proclaimed) superior views on selected topics (especially abortion, gay marriage, creationism in schools and stem cell research) on the broader culture. It has not gone well, to say the least.
After 40 years of intense political involvement, Evangelicals have little positive to show for their efforts. To the contrary, we’ve arguably only succeeded in getting multitudes of non-Christians [or simply non-Evangelicals] to distain us and the “Good News” message we’re supposed to be bringing. (A great book on the [mostly negative] non-Christian perceptions of Evangelicals in America is UnChristian by David Kinnamen and Gabe Lyons). Now that the political parties and positions Evangelicals largely identified with have fallen on hard times, Evangelicals have, to a significant extent, fallen with them.
Is The Demise of the Christian Religion a Bad Thing?
For those who are heavily invested in the Christian religion, at least as it’s usually been understood in America, the news that America is entering into a “post-Christian” epoch is understandably alarming. As Meacham makes apparent in his article, people like Albert Mohler find the indisputable evidence of Christianity’s demise in America deeply disturbing. Mohler vows to fight this demise tooth and nail, predicting that a “new generation of young pastors” is about to rise up “to push back against hell in bold and visionary ministry.” “Expect to see the sparks fly,” he adds.
Personally, I strongly suspect that all such “spark flying” efforts on the part the righteous to protect us sinners from ourselves will only speed Christianity’s demise.
Others of us interpret the demise of Christianity and America’s descent into a “post-Christian” epoch quite differently. Indeed, I and many others see this as good news! Yes, the loss of a Judeo-Christian civic religion may bring about a greater degree of moral and religious relativism and intensify American’s moral decadence. This is admittedly unnerving. But here are six reasons why I do not think Kingdom people should weep over the demise of American Christianity.
1. America has never been, and will never be, a “Christian” nation in any significant sense. Among other things, America, like every other fallen, demonically-oppressed nation (see Lk. 4:5-7; 2 Cor. 4:4; I Jn. 5:19; Rev. 13), is incapable of loving its enemies, doing good to those who mistreat it or blessing those who persecute it (Lk. 6:27-35). By applying the term “Christian” to America, we’ve massively watered down its meaning — which undoubedly helps explain why the vast majority of American Christians assume being “Christian” is perfectly compatible with hating and killing your national enemies if and when your earthly Commander and Chief asks you to. The sooner the label “Christian” gets divorced form this country, the better. It provides hope that someday the word “Christian” might actually mean “Christ-like” once again.
2. Related to this, there’s a good bit of research demonstrating that the majority of American’s identify themselves as “Christian” when asked by a pollster, but when asked what this label actually means in terms of core values and lifestyle choices, it becomes apparent that for the majority of them the meaning of “Christian” is basically “American.” I submit that the main problem Kingdom people confront in spreading the Kingdom in America is that a majority of people assume they are already in the Kingdom — they are “Christian” — simply by virtue of being American or because they prayed a certain prayer or go to Church once a year, or whatever. If fewer people are identifying themselves as “Christian,” this is good, for it means there’s one less major illusion that Kingdom people have to confront and work through as they invite these folks into the Kingdom.
3. If Evangelicals lose all their political clout, we may be less tempted to lust after political power, which means we may have one less distraction from actually doing what God called us to do — namely, manifesting God’s reign by how we humbly live, love and serve.
4. As my friend Alan Hirsch demonstrates in his great book, The Forgotten Ways, the Kingdom has always thrived — and really, has only thrived — when it was on the margins of society. The Kingdom is, by its very nature, a “contrast society.” If Christians lose all their power and position in society and become marginalized, this can’t help but be good for the Kingdom. If Christians become persecuted, it likely will be even better. We’d be turning back the clock from the disaster of Constantinian triumphalist Christianity in the direction of Apostolic, servant Christianity.
5. The “Christian” element of American culture was never deeper than the thin veneer of a shared civic religion. A major problem Kingdom people have faced on the mission field of America is that the majority of people mistook the civic religion for the real thing. So it is that so many think that being “Christian” is focused on preserving the civic religion (e.g. fighting for prayer before sports events, keeping the ten commandments on government buildings, holding onto a “Christian” definition of marriage within our government, etc.). Not only this, but this veneer of Christianity causes Jesus followers not to notice the many ways foundational assumptions that permeate American culture are diametrically opposed to the values of the Kingdom. If the civic religion of Christianity were to die, Kingdom people would be less tempted to associate Christianity with symbolic civic functions and would become more aware of how the Kingdom sharply contrasts with foundational aspects of American culture.
6. Finally, and closely related to this, if Jesus followers lose all their position and power and become a minority (or better, revealed to have always been a minority) in American culture, this will expose the idol of American individualism we have bought into for far too long and perhaps help us realize that we need to cling to each other and that the Kingdom is inherently communal. We are called to manifest God’s uniquely beautiful love and bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ by how we share our lives and serve one another (e.g. Jn. 17:20-26; Acts 2: 42-47. 4: 42-45). But its very difficult for many of us to embrace radical Kingdom community when we can get along very well (by American standards of “well”) without it. The demise of Constantinian American Christianity would serve us well by stripping us of the privilege of individualistic living.
Other possible positive outcomes of the demise of American Christianity could be listed, but this must suffice for now. I hope it is enough to show that, from a Kingdom perspective, the demise of American Christianity is not something we should weep over. To the contrary, its actually good news. Yes, it will likely bring about cultural disarray. But, as has often been noted, the Kingdom thrives best when the broader cultural is falling apart. The God-given mandate to Kingdom people is not to keep the broader culture from falling apart, but to offer all who are hungry a radically different, far more beautiful, way of doing life. And often people will not take this offer seriously until everything else is crumbling around them.
Let the civic religion die. And if the culture crumbles, it crumbles. Our task is to live in a way that gives people hope.