Tag: Respectful Conversation

Wake Me When the Revolution is Over

[My October contribution to the Respectful Conversation project on science and religion]

When I think about issues of science and religion, which frames this month’s respectful conversation, my thoughts go in two directions. One direction goes to dinner with Francis Collins. The other direction invoves Thomas Kuhn and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

One of the highpoints in my career came in the Spring of 2008 when Francis Collins came to the school where I was. He gave a public talk on Friday night, spent all day Saturday in an undergraduate biology seminar, and then joined a small group of us for dinner conversation that night. I’d  had the joy of sitting across from him at dinner both nights. It wasn’t a long conversation but it was enough to gather a sense of how a man of faith wrestled with his scientific expertise without crisis. He was done with his stint as director of the Human Genome Process and it was before President Obama named him director of the NIH.

Dr. Collins was warm, engaging, sincere, intelligent, funny, and musical (look up the YouTube videos). He was launching BioLogos at the time to explore fruitful conversations between science and religion (he had to give up leadership with the NIH gig came along). I was actually looking forward to another dinner after church on Sunday (he came to our church) but that didn’t happen. He may not remember me, but I think of him as a friend who taught me much about science and about religion.

I never met Thomas Kuhn, but his analysis has been a part of my thinking since graduate school (sociologists like paradigms). A philosopher of science, he outlined the ways in which scientific developments occur. My grad school theory text summarizes his argument in this figure:

The key focus of the process is from “Normal Science” to “Revolution”. Once an establishment understanding has developed, certain patterns are discovered that don’t fit the established theoretical framework. These anomalies are the source of puzzlement and are often thought to be a matter of methodological or theoretical challenge. But soon, there are too many anomalies to explain away. Faith in the prior paradigm begins to weaken and alternative theories better suited to include the so-called anomalies are developed. As the new paradigm begins to be institutionalized, younger generations and selected pioneers begin to articulate the comparative advance the new paradigm brings. Over time, it actually becomes the new Establishment Paradigm which wrestles with anomalies, new models, and so forth.

So when I read the great posts this month by Amos Yong, Kyle Roberts, and Peter Enns, I see them with eyes of Collins and Kuhn.

Peter observes that there are natural conflicts between evolution and evangelicalism. He says there is a high price of “not doing the hard and necessary synthetic work” of reconciling faith and science in adequate ways. That’s what has motivated Peter in his own work as a biblical scholar, even when (maybe especially when) that work means unpacking the anomalies that don’t fit the establishment paradigm. He ends his piece with a call for trust in God in the midst of uncertainty.

Kyle’s piece on seminary education picks up similar themes. He rightly suggests that one of the drivers of the whole “millennials are leaving the church” phenomenon is partially related to an inability to resolve the faith and science issue. His call for an intenal apologetic can be thougth of as the latter part of Kuhn’s crisis stage as a new paradigm begins to emerge.

As I think about this, I recognize that it might have been good to have brought up Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions in the July conversation about Scripture. Because there is not only a revoluton that happens in science but one in religion as well. As we approach and/or embrace postmodernity, we find ourselves having to engage new questions in new ways. The anomalies are many. But many folks still want to hold tightly to the Establishment phase and denounce the anomalies as errors instead of opportunity for new Paradigms. It is a remarkable fact that segments of the evangelical church are using essentially modernist argument to support scriptural postions at exactly the time when many in science (if you ignore the neo-athiests) are asking serious questions about the assumptions of scientism.

Which is the point I think Amos is trying to make. Both the rigid modernist biblical hermeneutic and the supposedly pristine scientific strategy are incomplete. There is a need to find space of supernaturalism within the context of inquiry. It’s an unfinished process and involves seeing through a glass darkly. But as Amos suggests, “those who are led by the Spirit can therefore pursue the life of the mind, even the scientific vocation, and in thei way also bring their own questions, perspectives, and curiosities to their scientific endeavors.”

Which brings me back to dinner with Francis Collins. What we need in the midst of these paradigmatic shifts are people of faithful character who neither duck the hard questions, settling for pat answers, nor abandon their faith because the answer is uncertain. Rather, they press on toward the mark in pursuit of the new Paradigm that brings some measure of reconciliation, at least until the next anomalies come along.

Changing Our Conversation

I’ve been wrestling with the ideas in this post for over a week. I knew what I wanted to say but was struggling over whether it was worth saying, if it had already been said much better by others, or if anybody cared if it was said. Yet the ideas wouldn’t stop spinning in my head so it seems the only way to organize my thinking is to say what’s in there.

For some time, I’ve been pondering the relationship between the evangelical church and the surrounding culture. I’ve read the material about the growth of religious nones and written about that. I’ve focused on millennials and the different questions they’ve been asking. I’ve looked at the options facing Christian higher education in light of these and other changes.

Looking around the blogosphere, I find lots of sources talking about a post-Christian society. I, along with others, have preferred the term post-Constantinian to denote the disentangling of the church from the power structures of the society. Others have suggested the term post-Christendom as a way of explaining the same shifts.

The partial government shutdown and the threat of a debt ceiling breach have prompted other posts about how the church (especially among the young) is turned off by the past blending of political and religious ideology. From the last two days alone I can point to pieces by Morgan Guyton, Ben Howard, and Jonathan Merritt.

Clearly, things are changing. Past assumptions are being called into question. Some people try to draw rigid boundaries to protect against the onslaught of change. Others are welcoming the changing context and calling the rest to find the courage to deal with the change around us.

Last night I realized that one of our real problems was trying to label the church in relationship to culture at all. Post-christian denotes a time when the society was Christian. Post-Constantinian suggests a changed relationship with the powers that be. What I’ve coming to recognize is that the church is never supposed to be defined in relationship to anything other than the Godhead. We are simply to BE the church and thereby a living witness to God’s Grace breaking into the world.

Change may be a problem for a church connecting to or reacting against existing power structures because change represents a realignment of the structures themselves. But the church isn’t about Power. It’s about witness. Once we start worrying about winning arguments, proving the superiority of our own positions, gaining access to important people, or becoming power brokers ourselves, we’ve forgotten who we are and why we exist.

Post-modernity provides an opportunity to tell our story with confidence, authenticity, and complexity. It allows us to admit that the world is messy without giving up our belief that God is doing his creative work in ways we can’t even see. Our words and stances may not persuade others, but perhaps that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Ours is to be faithful.

As I said, these aren’t new ideas. I recently came across a wonderful book by Rodney Clapp, “A Peculiar People: The Church in a Post-Christian Society”. Rodney wrote the book 17 years ago, before we were worrying about post-Christian labels. His point is that we weren’t supposed to be connected to society at all. He writes:

For radicals, postmodern pluralism is a social condition in which the Constantinianism that has always been a theological dead end now becomes a political and sociological dead end. There is a place for Christians in the postmodern world, not as typically decent human beings but as unapologetic followers of the Way. (32)

Other sources lately have led me to similar conclusions. Geoff Holsclaw’s work on the scandal of evangelical memory touches similar points as have several posts by David Fitch (they co-wrote Prodigal Christianity). I’m looking forward to being with them in two weeks for a Missional Commons gathering in Chicago.  I’ve enjoyed some e-mail conversations with Dr. Amos Yong, a fellow participant in the respectful conversations project.

The Church wasn’t bothered by change when Peter had that vision in Joppa. It wasn’t upset when Paul engaged the Greeks on Mars Hill. It wasn’t bothered by change at many points in modern history, even when the church got caught up in the wrong stuff. Somehow, it finds a way to simply be the church.

In class tonight, I spent some time unpacking the difference between contract and covenant. The former depends on power and is always worried that one party will take advantage of the other (which is why we have “binding” agreements and lots of lawyers). Covenant is based on relationship and rests in simple faithfulness.

As Abraham often learned, picking the wrong path didn’t break the covenant. It’s a lesson the Church would do well to embrace. It may be precisely what society needs in the midst of such major social change.

And Liberty and Justice for All

[My September submission to the American Evangelicals dialogue at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on Evangelicalism and Politics.]

An introductory comment: A reader responding to a recent post asked if I (and other writers in this series) saw any future in evangelicalism at all because he read the posts as attacking evangelical positions. I’ve been pondering that over the past few weeks and realize that I could be clearer on my intent. I’m raising concerns about some aspects of evangelical culture in an attempt to call out the latent consequences those pieces may have — especially in terms of the broader culture hearing the heart of evangelicalism as it shares the love of Christ in prophetic ways to the broader society. After the critique, I’ll try to do a better job of speaking to the positive future.

It was the fall of 1981 and I was teaching my very first Introduction to Sociology class. I’d been a TA for the course in grad school but now I was responsible for the lectures myself. When I got to the broad institutional areas (of which Politics is one), I contrasted different views of governance: town hall democracy, Jeffersonian government by elites, oligarchy, and special interests. As I finished giving the lecture, I suggested that many in the church had adopted special interest tactics and that I was worried that the Body of Christ would be seen as simply another advocacy group.

The Moral Majority had been formally established just two years prior and CNN the year after that. Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell could regularly be found on the new cable news outlet speaking on political issues on behalf of Christians. It had been eight years since the Roe v. Wade decision but was still five years away from the formation of Operation Rescue.

Sociology professors talking to undergraduates are  not prophets. Yet in my own small way, I was trying to be a voice about something that could prove problematic. Maybe if my undergrads paid attention and acted differently as a result, we’d find a better way of engaging the political realm.

The last three decades have seen my meager warnings come to full flower. We now have major political organizations organized around Christian themes (e.g., Family Research Council). Or are they Christian organizations organized around political themes (e.g., The Family Leader)? When political candidates flock to the  Value Voters Summit (“Faith, Family, and Opportunity for All”) to prove their conservative credential to a room full of Christian delegates, the lines between religion and politics seem to disappear.

The impact of “evangelical as special interest group” has been well documented. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? suggested about a decade ago that evangelical voters were enticed into voting for political candidates on promises to address social issues like abortion and prayer in schools but those issues didn’t remain important to the candidates after the election. He argues quite cynically (Frank is really good at cynicism) that if the issues were addressed, the voters might return to their economic interests as a basis for voting. Perversely, one of the outcomes of the special interest approach is that the establishment keeps the issue on the table to maintain funding and voter participation but doesn’t create the desired social change.

The dynamics of the special interest approach show up in the midst of the “millennials leaving church” argument. The Barna Group’s data suggests that at least some of the disaffection of today’s young people comes from seeing church leaders as overly strident on social issues, being anti-science, anti-homosexual. In short, it’s about being known for what one is against and not what one is for.

Listen to any news program discuss what “evangelical voters” care about. Sure, they’ll take about their concerns over abortion or traditional definitions of marriage. But you’re just as likely to hear them decry Obamacare, support lower taxes and limited government, and favor a strong military. This is another outgrowth of the special interest approach — parties build “big tents” of various special interests and those coalitions start to bleed over into common talking points.

Evangelicals may have access to varied outlets in television, radio, or internet, but it doesn’t change the basic principle of electoral politics: numbers. Consider the following chart produced by UConn sociologist Bradley Wright from General Social Survey data. It’s his estimate of the percentage of Americans who can be classified as evangelicals.

Wright Evangels-in-US

The GSS data suggests that evangelical strength peaked in about 1990 and has been slowly waning since. Other data suggests it’s waning even more rapidly among the young with the percentage evangelical for those under 30 falling to 17% in 2010. This means that evangelicals cannot shape public policy without significant assistance from non-evangelicals. That 24% of the public may be strident and therefore more likely to vote than the average citizen, but elections are likely to follow demographic trends similar to the 2012 election.

Here ends the negative griping. What is the alternative going forward? Let me suggest three strategies.

First, we should recognize the difference between what is scriptural priority (to some eyes) and what makes for public policy solutions. If evangelicals are only a quarter of the population, we’ll need to find better ways of engaging with those who don’t share our faith perspectives. It means being willing to influence those things we can while not fighting over the things we can’t. For example, there is interesting data from a recent Baylor Religion study suggesting that a segment of the evangelical public isn’t fighting gay marriage as a matter of social policy. A debate is brewing among some Christian bloggers about whether this represents caving to liberalism or crafting a “messy middle” My read of the report suggests the latter. The correlation data suggests that these Ambivalent Evangelicals (really needs a new label) share few if any characteristics with liberals. (I’m in conversation with the Baylor sociology folks to get a better read on the data and may update this as that comes together.)

Second, regardless of one’s view of Christian America rhetoric (there are a vast number of good Christian history sources laying the claim to rest, but it survives in spite of it), we need to craft an understanding of the country based on the current realities. Let’s not fight over Jefferson’s views on religion or the church memberships of the signers of the Declaration. We live in a culture that is marked by demographic diversity. We are surrounded by ideological diversity. We need to engage that discussion on the basis of guiding values and not on claims of superiority. It will require much patience, careful listening, and far less pronouncing. While 24% of the public isn’t majority language, it’s worth being heard as evangelicals.

Third, evangelicals are at our best when we’re advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. This has been the heart of the pro-life movement. But it goes beyond that. It means that we are passionate about justice — not just in a narrow partisan sense but in the “least of these” sense. Let’s worry less about political party orientation and think together with non-evangelicals about how we speak on behalf of those without voice. The poor, the broken, the abandoned, the hurting, the addicted, the dispirited. As people reflecting God who gave himself up for us, we cannot be guilty of a self-interested approach to democracy. It’s not about us. We already received more than we could possible imaging.

It’s about “liberty and justice for all”. There’s a reason the pledge ends with that line. It’s the hope of the nation and evangelicals have a unique role in seeing that hope come to fruition.

Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword

[Written as my July contribution to the American Evangelicalism project at http://www.respectfulconversation.net. This month’s topic is on “Evangelicals and the Modern Study of Scripture.“]

My fellow essayists this month have raised some interesting questions. What are the logical limitations of inerrancy? Are these important? What makes many evangelicals skittish about modern biblical scholarship? Are there valuable lessons to learn? What does it mean to “stand under” the text? Why is understanding original language important? How do we recognize the role of culture in biblical text while guarding against the tendency to read scripture only through our own cultural lenses?

This essay will explore the ways in which many evangelicals use scripture as a rhetorical weapon. In short, scripture is too often used as a conversation-ender and not a means of hearing God speak to all listeners. This rhetorical stance is relatively new in Church history and has distorted the meaning of scriptural authority. In the process, the scripture has become a tool to use on behalf of a position rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to deeper understandings.

The title of my post comes from Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (NASB).” This verse, along with others I’ll explore, provides insights into how evangelicals USE the scripture. I have often heard people quote this verse as a declaration of the Bible’s authority. Never mind that commentaries describe the broader Hebrews 4 passage as being about sabbath-keeping as instructed in the Law. The phase “word of God” becomes synonymous with the Bible and any verse is then a tool used to divide soul and spirit or judge hearts.

Yesterday, Christianity Today posted this story announcing that YouVersion had achieved the 100 million mark in downloads of this popular bible-based mobile app. They also released their newest list of the most popular verses sent via text or twitter or posted as a Facebook status. CT expressed concern that John 3:16 didn’t make the list. The most popular verses were Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11.

First of all, the very idea of something called YouVersion is the absolute epitome of the Extreme Individualism which has so colored American Evangelicalism. The scriptures thereby become MY possession, readily available for me to use as necessary. It is just that much easier for my to take these verses and make them about promises TO ME.

Jeremiah 29:11 reads “For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future (NIV).”  In spite of all the gifts we give to high school graduates anticipating college and beyond, this verse is written to the people of Israel collectively. Too often, we take the verse as a stand-alone tool to give comfort in anxiety or to somehow make prosper into a guarantee of riches to those who are obedient.

Biblical scholarship would have us recognize the specific role Jeremiah’s words of comfort played to the exiled Israelites. It’s a promise to God’s people collectively not to me individually. As Andre the Giant says in The Princess Bride, “I do not think that means what you think it means.

The YouVersion list illustrates something very important about evangelicals’ use of scripture. We really don’t know much about the Bible at all. That has been regularly demonstrated in research by Stephen Prothero and many others. Modern biblical scholarship that looks for the context of the biblical narrative isn’t particularly interesting to the folks who’d be attracted to YouVersion.

I’ve often joked that it would be interesting to put together the list of verses most often repeated by evangelicals (so I guess I should thank the YouVersion people). It’s an easy list — Proverbs 3:4-5 (used by Nic Wallenda in walking across the Grand Canyon), Psalm 139:13, Romans 8:28, Romans 5:23, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 5:22, Isaiah 6, Revelation 3:20, and many others including the verses mentioned above. I figure I could publish the Real Evangelical Version is about 22 pages!

So where does this approach to scripture come from? I think it’s based on a misunderstanding of biblical authority combined with a utilitarian view of evangelistic argument.

The latter is a direct expression of enlightenment era rationality. It’s caught up in the phrases”evidence that demands a verdict” and “God said it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.” In this sense, scripture is a tool to use. Because it’s God’s Word, it automatically trumps any other appeals. A sword is valuable when it is used, either offensively or defensively.

Fundamentalism has reset definitions so that the only view of biblical authority seems to require a belief in inerrancy. This was a point of conflict at one of my colleges when we thought we’d done a good thing by emphasizing the commitment to the authority of scripture as core institutional values. The immediate response from students and other conservative critics was that we ought to immediately fire the non-creationist faculty members because that’s what authority demands.

Justin Barnard’s post makes great use of C. S. Lewis. I was already thinking about how different Lewis’ rhetorical style in Mere Christianity is from the style of modern apologists. How many scriptures are cited in MC? Why doesn’t his argument include the obvious top ten list from YouVersion?

Not to make C.S. Lewis the model for evangelical rhetoric. Many others have observed his own limitations. But it’s striking that we use that sword as a tool that makes folks in Game of Thrones seem passive.

John’s gospel recounts how Peter responded at the point of Jesus’s arrest. Peter draws a sword and attacks the guard. Jesus rebukes Peter and restores the ear. Shortly thereafter, as he is being interrogated by Pilate, Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place (John 1:36 NIV).

As Amos Young observes, maybe attentiveness to the Spirit can lead to a new rhetorical style, one that seeks to engage the other rather than winning argument. I’m reminded of the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus. They knew their scriptures and had a means of understanding them leading them to believe their side was winning. Now Jesus was dead and their understanding was shattered. When they encounter Jesus on the road, they stop worrying about what they thought. He leads them to understand all of scripture in a new way. Not only are they restored, but they reverse course and return to the scary place that was Jerusalem.

As they follow the Spirit’s lead, the wind up not needing a sword after all. Because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, they don’t have a need to fight. Modern biblical scholarship, in this view, is not a threat but another means through which the Holy Spirit bears witness.