Archives For Evangelicalism

Lisa Sharon Harper thinks it can.
In this episode, talks with us about how radical and beautiful 19th century evangelicalism was in its contributions to the abolitionist and suffragist movement. And she shares why she thinks that Genesis 1 is the key to understanding the Christian gospel.
Lisa works at Sojourners and is the author of the recent book The Really Good Gospel.

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Over the past couple of weeks folks in and out of the faith, mostly at the gym, have marveled to me how so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump, America’s very own Banana Republic candidate.

‘That’s because they’re liberals,’ I’ve discovered I enjoy replying.

Pause for look of confusion.

‘Theological liberals.’

Pause for further confusion.

‘Don’t look at me. I’m not one.’

What the term ‘liberal’ means in the theological world isn’t the same thing as political liberalism. The two can overlap in sensibilities and conclusions, but not all political liberals are theological liberals, for example. In fact, I would argue that evangelicals, most of whom are conservative when it comes to their politics, are liberal in the theological sense when it comes to their biblical interpretation.

So what’s theological liberalism?

Big picture: theological liberalism is how Christianity reacted to the challenge of modernity.

Specifically, it refers to how Christianity reacted to the Enlightenment discoveries regarding the origin of the universe, evolution of creatures etc. Suddenly with Darwin, Newton and the rest, the literal, biblical view of our world was cast into question. A rational, objective account of Christian faith was cast into question.

One branch of the Christian tree reacted by vigorously defending the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith and asserting how they could be rationally demonstrated as true.

This was the birth of modern evangelical fundamentalism- see it’s not that old a tradition. It’s younger than the 13th Amendment.

Another branch of the Christian family reacted by instead adapting traditional, orthodox Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment.  This branch redefined Christianity’s “essence” so that it no longer conflicted with the “best” of modern thought.  Rather than worrying about demonstrating the rational truth of scripture and doctrine, this branch redefined Christianity as primarily about human experience.

That is, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God to speech.

This branch distinguished between ‘facts’ (Science) and ‘values’ (Religion), or a better way to put it: Science describes the world as it is and Religion describes it as it should be. Thus, Christianity became less about rationally demonstrable beliefs and more about ethics. Whereas Branch 1 reacted to modernity by trying to rationally prove, say, the Resurrection, this Branch reacted to modernity by interpreting the Resurrection as symbolic of a deeper rational ‘truth.’

No longer are the stories of Jesus literally true, they are moral lessons that are universally accessible through our faculty of reason.

If you want to know why most preaching in mainline churches is moralistic finger-wagging and why mainline Christians seem incapable of actually talking about God or their faith… this is why and whence it comes.

Notice what both branches above share:

1. The assumption there is something called ‘Truth’ that is universal, not contingent upon language or culture, and accessible to all.

2. The assumption that Truth is accessed by or through Reason.

3. The assumption that because Truth is mediated by universal Reason then scripture must be an objectively, factual text (Branch 1) or objectively, factually incorrect (Branch 2) thus requiring ‘adaptation’ to fit our modern worldview.

This leads Branch 1 to give scripture too much authority (inerrancy) and Branch 2 no authority beyond its practicality (say, the United Methodist Church  )

In other words-

They both reacted to modernity’s challenges by assuming modernity’s premise was accurate: that Truth is mediated rationally and accessible to all regardless of language, culture or perspective.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

That’s why or how most evangelicals (who fall into Branch 1) can be politically conservative (and, in Trump’s case, tribal) and still be theologically liberal. It’s how, for example, that evangelical preachers as disparate as Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen are, in fact, more liberal, theologically speaking, than Pope Francis. Liberalism is what makes it possible for Donald Trump to quote scripture out of context at Liberty University, completely removed from any participation in and submission to a community of interpretation.

Once you’ve bought into the dominant, underlying premise of your surrounding culture, its difficult to avoid having it shape your fundamental identity and form your ultimate loyalty no matter how much you rail against the culture and its elites.

 

james_dobson_756079At a friend’s house for dinner recently, someone compared me to Anthony Bourdain or, rather, called me the Anthony Bourdain of the Church world.

Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and host of No Reservations, brings a dark cynical eye, soul of a poet, biting tongue and sometimes bigger heart to the culinary world. Bourdain can bring crappy cooks to tears for their sloppy ways but then around and wax poetic about the Jersey sliders of his youth.

Simply put, it was the most flattering comparison any one has ever made about me. I was on cloud 9 for days.

But then came this comparison from the blogosphere, contrasting me with James Dobson, the blowhard Pharisee who heads of Focus on the Family. Dobson got his start peddling his own particular brand of ‘use the rod, beat the child’ common sense psychology and today serves as the unelected Caiphus of Texas.

As the article rightly notes, I’m not in Dobson’s league at all- but I really like the comparison.

The article is from Slacktivist, arguing that what really defines evangelicalism today isn’t biblicism or orthodox belief but strident antipathy toward homosexuality:

james_dobson.06.01.07_lrgWhite evangelicals who are like that are completely secure in their place within the subculture. They get speaking gigs, tenure, book deals and constant affirmation from throughout the larger white evangelical community. Their standing within the tribe is unquestioned, unchallenged and  not “controversial.” But those of us who aren’t like that are, at best, treated as “controversial” and only semi-legitimate members of the tribe. We aren’t usually even allowed to say that we’re part of us.

The tribe draws its own boundaries. That’s done by the gatekeepers within the tribe — not by some conspiratorial “narrative advanced by the news and entertainment media.”

Those rabidly political types who claim to represent all of white evangelicalism are allowed to do so. The tribal gatekeepers never refer to Tony Perkins or James Dobson or Pat Robertson as “post-evangelical” conservatives. Yet folks like Brian McLaren or Jay Bakker are routinely classified as no longer legitimate members of the tribe.

The message there is clear: Rabidly political evangelicals who revile LGBT people in the most vicious terms remain welcome in the tribe. Bible-quoting, Jesus-loving evangelicals who refuse to condemn LGBT people have crossed a boundary and are no longer welcome. The news and entertainment media did not create that boundary, the tribal gatekeepers did.

Or, to put it another way: Here is Jason Micheli’s response to the Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality. Here is James Dobson’s response. One of those men is an evangelical icon, was the subject of a hagiographic Christianity Today cover story, and his books can be found in the homes of millions of white evangelicals. The other is not regarded as an evangelical at all, even though he’d fit any Bebbington-style theological definition anyone would care to use.

Such theological definitions don’t matter. You will never be branded as “controversial” or banished from the evangelical tribe for insufficient biblicism. Or because your enthusiasm for crucicentrism, conversionism or missional activism is regarded as suspect. But if you’re feminist or pro-gay, you’re out. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Bebbington, schmebbington. The tribe defines itself: An evangelical is a white Protestant who opposes legal abortion and homosexuality. Period.

You can read the full article here.