Being Post Evangelical

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I've been trying over the past few years to figure out how to describe my faith. It seems a lot of others are on that same journey through the "evangelical wilderness" not really feeling at home in the traditional molds, but not knowing exactly where they belong either. I'm not conservative, but I am equally not liberal, and in todays polarized culture where you are either one or the other, that puts me in the category of nowhere.

Many people have responded to this with a shift in terminology. They see that calling themselves evangelical and even Christian has a negative association that they want to distance themselves from and so they come up with new terms like "follower of Jesus" or even "follower in the way of Jesus" (that's FITWOJ for short, very catchy indeed). Others have left evangelicalism for the orthodox church, the mainline church, the catholic church, the emergent church, and so on. I never felt I could do that. As much as I struggled with it, I felt that this embarrassing family was, like it or not, my own family. It was my home, and I felt inauthentic anywhere else. Yet I did not feel at home in my dysfunctional evangelical family either, kind of like how many of us feel at our own biological families over the holidays when we cringe at the awful things uncle Larry says.

I have tried putting a good face on evangelicalism by my own witness, trying to broaden people's view of what it means to be evangelical, showing them that it can be thoughtful and compassionate. The basic line I took - and I think it is one an awful lot of people take - is that yes there are a few wackos out there that give us all a bad name, angry hurtful people with a pulpit and a TV camera, but the vast majority of us are really pretty loving people. "On the whole evangelicalism is good," I would argue, "it's just a few bad apples". I don't think I can get off that easy now. I think there are many things that are fundamentally wrong with my own evangelical faith, places where we have strayed from the Gospel and become idolatrous in adopting values of our country and culture that are diametrically opposed to the Gospel and what Jesus stood for. I could string out a laundry list of these, and I'm sure you could too. I don't want to defend that or even white wash it.

So I am post-evangelical. Not 'post' in the sense of being 'anti' evangelical or 'past' evangelical. I still very much affirm all the core beliefs of evangelicalism - I am an evangelical. But I think our faith needs to reform itself back into a faith that authentically arises directly out of the Gospel. A big part of that recovery of an authentic evangelicalism has been in looking at my own church heritage and history. Like most evangelicals my understanding of the last 2000 years of church history used to look something like this:

Book of Acts . . . . . . . . . Luther . . . . . . . . . now.

What I found though as I studied history is that my own evangelical faith has a rich tradition beginning with German pietism, continuing into Methodism and the First and Second Great Awakenings, and then into Pentecostalism - not only of stressing the importance of being transformed through a vibrant relationship with God, but also of a deep commitment to social justice and the poor. For hundreds of years loving Jesus and caring for the poor were inseparable. That's not to say that these 'golden years' of evangelicalism were without their own problems of course. I don't want to idealize the past. But I have found that understanding more about where we have come from can help us to figure out where we should be going now, and what authentically following Jesus might look like in our time.

For me being post-evangelical (or if you prefer new-evangelical) means that I affirm that I am an evangelical, and at the same time that my own evangelical faith has in many ways taken a major wrong turn and seriously needs to deeply seek out what radically loving and following Jesus might look like.

I remember when I first visited Germany we were at the Gedaechniskirche in the center of Berlin. This is a church that has been deliberately left as it was after the war - a huge gaping hole ripped into it by a bomb - as a remembrance of Germany's role in WWII. I remember speaking to the pastor of that church and him asking me to forgive him and his people for what they had done. I was taken aback at first since this pastor could not have been more than 4-years-old when it all happened. Yet there he was, taking responsibility for the deeds of his own people, and repenting in the midst of that war-torn cathedral. I hope I can be a bit like him now, because I am an evangelical, and I need to ask your forgiveness.

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The Emerging Relational Theology #5

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Emergents are often accused of being little more than repackaged liberal Christianity. One place where this comes up is in our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. The typical evangelical pat answer here has to do with believing the right stuff, and having a conversion expereince. The flip side liberal answer has to do with doing the right stuff. Many emergents, unsatisfied with their own evangelical background which was focused on rigid orthodoxy now stress a focus on orthopraxy, and speak of being a "follower of Jesus". In this focus on following the moral teachings of Jesus over and against right belief they do seem very much to echo liberalism.

There is however a third relational way that goes beyond this liberal/conservative divide between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This way is one that is not so much new as it is a rediscovery of ancient faith (I realize that this is a claim nearly every group makes for itself, that they are the original and true version, so take it with a grain of salt). The term orthodoxy as it was originally used does not actually mean right belief or right doctrine, it means right worship ("dox" as in "doxology"). In this sense what we believe, value, embrace, and affirm is directly connected to how we live, and in fact how we live and love God is primary - that is, our expression and formulation about who God is and who we are come out of experiencing God in history transforming our own history. As a consequence being a Christian is not based on our moral performance, nor is it based on our ability to arrive at the right formulations (a kind of intellectual salvation by works). It is based on God entering into our lives and doing a work in us. This relational view assumes a real living God who can be known by us relationally and that being in this relationship is transforming. It is not simply following the teachings of a dead guy on our own, nor it is affirming the formulations of who God is that were written by some others dead guys, it is about being connected to the living and risen Christ - to the one who is life abundant itself, and having that new life form who we are, how we see, and how we live. Being a Christian is about being alive in Christ. It means having Christ abiding in our hearts, being transformed into his image through his present love in our lives changing us from the inside out.

Now all of this is pretty much a Wesleyan view of salvation as integrally connected to sanctification. It is the kind of intimate relationship with God that many evangelicals have been familiar with from day one. In may be more familiar within charismatic denominations than reformed ones, but it is not really anything "emergent". What is emergent is an additional "catholic" twist to this relational view. That's "catholic" with a small "c" as an adjective not a noun, meaning not the Roman Catholic church, but simply a focus on the church as a body rather than on individual personal salvation in isolation from the community of faith. Here church is not understood as an authoritarian institution that meets on the weekend to dispense correct teaching, but a living community of those who indwelt by God in Christ are being transformed into living out Christ-likeness together. Simply put: loving God cannot be separated from loving others. We learn God's love by seeing it modeled and lived out, and the vocation of the body is to be this salt - to reveal Christ. We can't really speak of a relationship with God if we divorce this from living in relationship with others in community. That's pretty much the point John makes over and over in his epistles.

This communal idea of living in relationship together as the body of Christ in the world is an idea that has been pretty neglected. For many of us we go to church in the sense of it being an event, close our eyes during worship and face forward to listen to the sermon. We sit next to others, but we might as well be alone. Afterwards we might small talk a bit over donuts before we drive off in our cars back to our own private lives. Not exactly the same as the vision of koinonia community in the book of Acts where they lived together sharing everything in common, living and dying together, living out agape love. We know from Paul's letters that this was not always rosy or without problems, but it seems that this kind of real relational living together in our world of commuter church events is not really even on our radar at all. Frankly I am uninterested in whether a church has cool moody candles and overhead beamers with interactive worship video, and would love instead to just have some people sharing their lives and being real - less postmodern glitz and more plain old unromantic friends hanging out and sharing their imperfect lives.

(thanks to emerging grace for the above poster)

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Issues (Think About It)

Friday, July 11, 2008


Prince Caspian and the absence of God

Sunday, July 06, 2008

I watched Prince Caspian over the weekend - the latest installment in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia - and am a bit hard pressed as to why this would be considered a movie that has Christian themes. Yes there is the theme of theodicy expressed in everyone's (except Lucy of course) ability to see Aslan which seems like a pertinent one to cover in our time. But I must say I found it rather disturbing that in the absence of God's (Aslan's) presence the main activity of the film is all the children running of to kill the bad people shouting enthusiastically "for Aslan!". What kind of message is that? So I have to ask: How is Prince Caspian any more Christian than a movie about the Crusades? The film was allegedly adapted for the mores of today's audiences, but rather than possibly being a wee bit sensitive to the themes of glorifying killing in God's name, the only adaptation (other than increasing the amount of battle scenes) was to let the girls kill people now too along with the boys. Yippie!

What seems to be lacking here is the complexity and seduction of evil that was present in the first film in the betrayal of Edmond, or the counter cultural "deeper magic" of Aslan sacrificing his life in order to overcome evil (an element that was underplayed by the way in the film adaptation of LW&W to make room for more CG war scenes). What we have here is a Narnia without "deeper magic" without the struggles of character, without the complexity of evil as something that runs through all of us, without overcoming evil with grace and self-sacrificing love. What we are left with, as one reviewer puts it is "a movie about kids who go into another world and dimension and spend the whole time killing people."

I would have loved to see a film that dealt seriously with the consequences of a world where God is absent. There was real potential here to draw out some profound themes. But what we get instead is your typical shallow popcorn action film made just a little bit more crass by having children doing the killing and doing it "for Aslan!"


Preaching grace

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

In the public square Christians are sadly known as people who specialize in judging others - who is moral and immoral, who is saved and who is damned. To a certain extent we do need to be able to evaluate our world, and to recognize things that are messed around us. Everyone does in fact do this. It's impossible not to. But the response that should characterize us as Christians is that of grace not condemnation. Grace recognizes that there is real wrong and hurt, real sin and evil in us and in our world, but instead of responding with condemnation, grace responds by "always hoping, always believing, always trusting". Grace does not deny or ignore the reality of brokenness in our lives, it does not pretend that we are not screwed up. Instead Grace defiantly loves and hopes in the face of our failure and stupidness. Grace counterintuitively seeks to redeem the lost causes. It looks at the reality of our world filled with suffering and injustice and insists that despite all this, we choose to believe that God's grace will still win the day.

Grace is what we should be known for as followers of Christ, but sadly we Christians are largely known for what Phillip Yancy has called 'ungrace'. Ungrace is "that state of being in which self-righteousness and pride are a result of thinking that we have somehow earned God's approval and may now stand in judgment in his behalf." In a rather amusing passage from Church Dogmatics Karl Barth sums up how ridiculous we look when we try and take on God's roll in judging,
"Man thinks he sits on a high thrown, but in reality he sits only on a child's stool, blowing his little trumpet, cracking his little whip, pointing with frightful seriousness his little finger, while all the time nothing happens that really matters. He can only play the judge." (CD IV/2 60.2, p.446)
We may think we are battling for God in our outspoken condemnation of wrong around us, but if we are not doing this in a radical spirit of grace, then we are simply not representing Christ and God. If there is one single sin in the New Testament that is seen as the most severe, the most harmful, it is the loveless judgmentalism exhibited by the religious leaders. The harshest words of Jesus are reserved for condemning exatly this sin, and Paul in Galatians has a cow when that church begins to buy into this way, asking them incredulously if they have completely lost their minds and telling them that in following this way of judgment and law they have "fallen away from grace". He means that quite literally because the way of judgmentalism exhibited by the religious leaders of our day is the opposite of grace. It is, Paul says, and 'ungospel'.

From a biblical perspective, and in particular from a New Testament perspective this is the most serious of all sins. No other sin is so harshly condemned. Yet when do you hear pastors from the pulpit confronting these religious leaders, calling them on their sin as Jesus does? Instead they manage to hide in a mantle of religious self-righteousness. As if we had never read the New Testament. The problem is not so much that there are some obnoxious people who use religion and a cover for their hate. The problem is that the church does not vocally speak out against it as clearly being the deadly sin that it is. The problem is that the way of grace is rarely ever preached.

This way of grace is not self-evident. It goes against the grain our natural (read: carnal) inclinations. So we need to hear grace preached to us so it saturates our thinking and becomes second nature to us. Christians are not those who do not judge, we are those who love, hope, and forgive in spite of seeing our own failings and the failings around us. We are not those who have it all figured out, who are upstanding and flawless. We are, as a Switchfoot song goes, "the church of the dropouts and losers and sinners and failures and the fools". We are those who love because we have been loved when we were unlovable.

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