Tag: N.T. Wright

A Way Forward (Part Three): Resisting Labels

My argument began with a call for us to separate Christian Faith from the cultural baggage we’ve assumed, whether that is the syncretism of political dynamics or the sacralization of cultural patterns. The second leg of the argument privileged religious practice, regardless of denominational affiliation, over issues of self-identification. These two components lead to a third part of the argument: the labels we toss around in our intra-Christianity fights are counterproductive and need to go.

It’s not uncommon for sociologists like me to try to make distinctions between forms of religious groups. We have labels like Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainline, Spiritual But Not Religious, and Religious “Nones”. We are more likely than theologians to define these in terms people actually use rather than through some pedigree of intellectual history. But such definitions are as varied as the people who use them.

In fact, I’m coming to believe that the primary function of these labels is negative. Decades ago, Richard Quebedeaux said Evangelicals were “polite fundamentalists”. As I’ve written, certain mainliners want people to know that they aren’t like “those evangelicals with all their political stances”. Evangelicals distinguish themselves from mainliners who hold an “anything goes” mentality. The SNBR folks say that faith is important but don’t want anything to do with the corruptions of organized religion.

If I’m correct that the labels operate as negative referents, then we wind up doing serious damage to the way the church is viewed within larger social discourse. It’s easy to pick out extremists, to caricature positions, and write blog posts castigating others (or others as they exist in the author’s imagination).

For a long time, my social media feeds have been the window through which I could see these label battles play out. Someone will post something, others will respond, the initial poster or a supporter will write on what’s wrong with the responders, and the whole thing goes on ad infinitum. I’m not casting stones, here, just making sociological observations — I’m guilty of this as my next post is a direct response to things written about millennials. Mystery of faith

But today, my social media feeds don’t allow me to distinguish between labels. Today, Easter Sunday, the communications are all about what the liturgies refer to as the Great Mystery of Faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Facebook is full of call and response: “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!” In these historic sentiments, as well as in the creeds, we get the heart of the church as both theological and sociological expression. We believe in God, creator of heaven and earth. In Christ’s incarnation, passion, and emerging reign. In the Spirt who brings together “the holy catholic church”. In the mystery of the trinity, where all this is caught up together in the Godhead that I cannot begin to fathom.

As I was working on this post, Scott Emery posted the text of an Easter sermon N.T. Wright gave four years ago.  I recognize that many of the themes therein were related to the ideas Wright later developed in When God Became King. The entire sermon is worth reading, but this passage stood out to me.

The resurrection points the way to a new sort of life, a new way of life, a way which is neither the brittle pseudo-correctness of a church out of touch with the people, nor the cloying pseudo-righteousness of a pontificating press, but the humble yet clear testimony that though we are foolish and ignorant, God is all wise and all knowing; that though we get it badly wrong, when we face up and say ‘Sorry’ God forgives us because of the cross of Jesus Christ and shows us how to live out the implications of that costly forgiveness; that though death, corruption and deceit appear to have the last word, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Too much of the church’s history and the church’s present has been caught up in determining who was in and who was out. But the focus has primarily been on those on the outside of the circles we draw. This may stem from old-fashioned status anxiety — if we can define right belief and practice by separating from some others we can feel more confident in our standing with God.

But this is a a snare. The more I look for reasons to think I’m more faithful (because I reject the idea of labels as all good Christians should) then I’ve shifted the grounds for my salvation from the mystery of the resurrection to my own efforts, commitments, and arguments.

What binds us together as people of faith are these simple declarations. He is Risen Indeed! Nothing more than that. To be sure, the farther we walk in faith, the more complicated the implications Wright addresses become. But we are walking together in this journey of faith. We don’t stand in superiority to others, looking down on them from our certainty. We didn’t win some cosmic battle with white hats and black hats. We are pilgrims walking by faith. Frederick Buechner puts it like this:

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.

This is the embrace of what C.S. Lewis, in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, called The Deep Magic. The recognition that we have all benefitted from a truly incredible act. One that brings us together and allows us to live into the New Kingdom.

One of my all-time favorite sociology quotes is from Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology, written in 1963. Berger wrote: “Only he who understands the rules is in a position to cheat.” This sentence summarizes why I study sociology.

It also summarizes what it means to walk in a community of faith with people with varied theological presuppositions. We understand that we are connected to the reality of God’s plan as expressed in creation, covenant, exodus, diaspora, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, pentecost, and emerging reign. We know the story and that allows us to live as brothers and sisters instead of competing factions.

Sharing that story without condescension will provide a bright path forward for faithful Christians in a world where religion holds less of a central role. That’s Good News for all of us.

 

Industry v. Testimonial Evangelicalism: Concrete Examples

I have been headed for this particular post for several months now. My sociological rambling and pondering has remained abstract and appropriately theoretical. But exploring the implications of what I’ve been thinking requires me to get specific.

This is a scary thing because it requires vulnerability. I stake my claim and then you can blog about me, send angry e-mails, invite trolls to inhabit my otherwise friendly pages, or write nasty letters to my administrators. Maybe all of the above. But writing has its responsibilities and possibly being taken to task for what seems to make sense at the moment is part of the obligation.

First, a quick summary of the previous two posts: I define Industry Evangelicalism as that form of evangelical thought and conversation dedicated to maintaining a particular place in the social milieux. This is expressed in celebrity speakers maintaining a following, in worldview advocates building airtight systematics, in organizations maintaining their stance against perceived incursions from hostile others, in polemics maintaining an argument in spite of changing circumstances. As I’m conceptualizing it, you can have Industry Evangelicalism on the Right and on the Left (and maybe even in the Middle but the examples are harder to come by). The strategy is similar: pick an outrage from outside the boundary, organize against it, and demonstrate the comparative value of your position (and the comparative wrongness of the other). To stay with my Weberian ideal types, they share more characteristics than not.

I define Testimonial Evangelicalism as that form of evangelical expression that comes from sharing one’s story. This is not a pre-packaged Four Spiritual Laws approach but a real sharing of joy and sorrow, faith and doubt, certainty and question, strength and weakness, success and failure. God’s Grace and forgiveness is part of that story; it’s likely the central thread or pivotal motif of that story. But it’s not a trump card one plays. It’s an invitation into dialogue. And as people dialogue as individuals created in God’s image, the Holy Spirit moves to build community and common understanding.  We need to be able to tell our stories and hear other’s stories in ways that maintain authenticity and dignity for all. Conservatives have good stories. Progressives have good stories. Athiests have good stories. Religious Nones have good stories. The telling of our story is the beginning of the dialogue that must avoid prioritizing MY story as the one that should be heard.

Enough theorizing. Let’s get concrete with all this.

Concrete Example One: Homosexuality (No Duck Dynasty references, I promise.) Yes, I’m starting with one of the most emotionally charged issues in Evangelical World. Because it is one of the clearest illustrations of the distinction I’m making. It’s useful to examine how it’s been addressed by various groups. On the conservative side, we hear calls for Believing the Bible, Biblical Marriage (at least in Genesis 2, later polygamous relationships are ignored), callous comments about “Adam and Steve”, or worries about body parts (I’m not going there because I promised no DD references). On the progressive side we hear accusations of homophobia and calls to affirm loving relationships.  But a Testimonial approach begins in an entirely different place; where people really live. A few years ago I was in a discussion with some 20-something Christian women and Prop 8 came up. I asked them how they engaged the question and they said “we had to decide what we thought about homosexuality in seventh grade show choir when that guy came out in rehearsal“. It was a brilliant answer. They had to wrestle with their belief system AND their compassion for their friend. Micah Murray expressed the same sentiment very well in this Huffington Post Live segment (especially the first 4 1/2 minutes). I have had many colleagues who learned their loved ones were gay. They know all the “right arguments” but prioritize remaining a part of their loved one’s lives. They are interested in the broad philosophical or theological debates, but they can bracket those for the time being to give priority to those they care about. A few years ago, I had a student ask me “how I thought” about same-sex marriage. I was struck with the hospitable invitation to honestly explore the range of ideas surrounding the topic.

Concrete Example Two: Creation/Evolution Easy to illustrate the Industry Evangelicalism version of this one — just Google “Bill Nye to debate Ken Ham”. Those on the Ken Ham side demonize the science side, engage in ridicule, and hold to their own view of science that is consistent with their perspective. Those who don’t like Ham and the Creation Museum write dismissive pieces (with some good science) that border on caricature. Which works for Ham because it allows him to play the victim card. On the other hand, Testimonial Evangelicalism is far more careful in acknowledging the difficulties of working through faith/science issues. I’ve known several biology professors over the years who share the story of their difficult journey to keep their faith and science in dialogue.  They readily explain their position while maintaining deep compassion for their hearers. This works for nonscientists as well. My friend Tom Oord has helped organize a fascinating site called “Nazarenes Exploring Evolution“. It contains first-person statements from a variety of denominational folks (pastors, educators, and scientists) reflecting on their journeys. No definitive answers wrapped in a neat bow. Just faithful telling of what they’re learning about God.

Concrete Example Three: Biblical Interpretation On the Industry Evangelicalism side, supporters elevate specific passages of the Bible to special status. The Scripture becomes the ultimate trump card that ends all conversation, especially when the verse shared is prefaced with “God Says…”. It used to be expressed as “God said it, I believe it, and that’s Good Enough for me.” To question is to doubt God, His Power, and His Plan. Molly Worthen’s book explores the interesting connection between enlightenment scientism and inerrancy (she gives a short version of the argument in this piece she posted today). The Industry version sees any questioning of the scripture as unacceptable (see this story on Cedarville University as an example). Testimonial Evangelicalism, on the other hand, explores the meaning of scriptures in spiritual formation. It allows biblical scholars to wrestle openly with difficult issues of alignment, purpose, and context of scripture. It gives people the freedom to hold a high view of scripture, to share how the Story of God intersects with our story (people should read N.T. Wright, Scott McKnight, Peter Enns, and others for illustration). It doesn’t require easy and tight answers but allows us to wrestle with the meaning of scripture for our lives as an unfolding exploration leading us closer to God.

There are undoubtedly other examples that I could unpack. But this is a beginning.

I’m not saying that Industry Evangelicalism is going away. I am saying that it will be harder to maintain as an option within a rapidly changing, religiously diverse, postmodern society. Testimonial Evangelicalism begins with an expression of one’s values. When treated with dignity and a grant of authority, it can be shared with the values that are authentic to dialogue partners. In that dialogue we will find the Grace that allows Evangelicalism to flourish in the contemporary age.