Lots of people are asking “is this the end of evangelicalism?”
The answer is ‘yes’ but maybe not for the reasons that you are thinking of.
Enjoy the video and let me know your thoughts.
Lots of people are asking “is this the end of evangelicalism?”
The answer is ‘yes’ but maybe not for the reasons that you are thinking of.
Enjoy the video and let me know your thoughts.
I am preparing to lead a 3-month book discussion of The Church of Us vs. Them by David Fitch for the adult Sunday school at my church.
My plan is to pair the chapter in the book with a different book, school of thought, or historical movement. Some of these include The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen, The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas, and the Anabaptist tradition.
Here are the 7 conversations that I hope will come up in the next 3 months:
Here is a quick video (5 min) to introduce the topics:
Let me know your thoughts, questions, and concerns.
The church is always changing.
It adjusts and adapts to cultural shifts and needs.
Change is often initiated when new technology meets evolving theology.
I talked about it in Why Do Church This Way? [link] or listen to the podcast audio
There are two interesting notes about these changes:
1) When new developments arise, the previous form does not go away, it continues on but without its former prominence or influence.
Phyllis Tickle points out in The Great Emergence that 500 years ago when the Protestant Reformation happened, the Catholic Church did not cease to exist. It had a counter-reformation and made some changes.
500 years earlier the same happened with Great Schism between the Roman West and the Eastern Orthodox. Both of which survived … just in modified forms.
500 years early in the period of Councils and Creeds saw similar issues of division and adaption.
500 years earlier (in the fallout of the the Axial Age) figures like Jesus had profound effects, and some divisions, with the existing religious order of their day.
We are 500 years after the Protestant Reformation we look to be going through something similar.
2) There is always an authority issue involved in change.
Like a song, most people focus on the lyrics and the melody – for our analogy that is the theology and the technology. The driving force is the baseline – this is the role of authority.
Authority was central in every change listed above:
I like to talk about collaboration, contribution, and conversation as locations of authority. I have a very de-cenereted and democratized ideal of the church in the 21st century.
I have to keep reminding people that this is not a “free-for-all” anything-goes anarchy. It is simply the church hosting a space and but not providing all of the content.
The current change is about control. We are no longer in control. That doesn’t mean that things are out-of-control!! It means that control was always an illusion at some level and required coercion and violence to maintain the illusion.
Opening up the microphone means that we are not in control of everything that is said. The desire for control keeps us from welcoming our congregation’s insights, experience, and perspectives as locations for God’s revelation and our theological reflection.
Admittedly, we are in the earliest days of the transition .. but here is the harsh reality:
People are voting with their feet and the ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ are the fastest growing religious affiliation in N. America. People are going to grow increasingly unsatisfied with being spectators at religious spectacles where their contribution doesn’t count and their experience and perspective are not valued.
Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think.
Beginning this Sunday, I want to put a series of ideas in front on my congregation and brainstorm them together during Sunday School. You can listen to the podcast audio here.
I am working on a clear way to present ‘Church 2.0’ or ‘ChurchNext’.
We will start with some history about different ways that the church has looked in different eras.
Here are the two really interesting things about that:
First, in each new era, the previous way still hangs around – it is just not as prominent.
So in the reformation, sacraments were still present but just not primary. Preaching was the main attraction.
Now in the ‘music’ era, we still have preaching and sacraments (for the most part) but in many circles they are secondary or driven by the music.
Second, I truly believe that we are about to enter a very different expression. This future of the church is going to be in:
Eventually people are going to get tired of being spectators at a weekly spectacle. In so many other areas of life, people’s participation really matters. They get to contribute their unique insight, perspective, and experience. Then they come to church, sing the songs on the screen then sit and listen to a TEDtalk style sermon (I am being cheeky here).
If that works for people, I celebrate that and congratulate them. I mean them no harm … but for so many other people it is just not satisfying.
People are walking away from the church in record numbers – nones and dones are the fasting growing segment of religious affiliation on the most recent census data.
But there is a different way to do church that opens up the conversation to inquiry and doubt … it facilitates a thoughtful space to ask difficult questions. That is my hope for doing church this way and for becoming a conversational community.
So why do church this way?
When Sarah Palin said that water-boarding was how we baptized terrorist, it was a turning point for my understanding of faith and the role it plays in our culture. I don’t know if I was more offended because of my hatred of torture (or ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’) or my love of baptism and what it represents as a central expression of the faith. Baptism is how we who believe demonstrate that we accept the death-to-self and enter into the life-of-Christ.
I had been asking this question ever since Rumsfeld/Cheney put Bible verses on the covers of their Iraq war briefings to President Bush. That is how I learned about things like ‘master signifiers’, which are symbols such as ‘Christianity’ that have become detached from the meaning that they were originally anchored to. They are un-tethered from the history that originally gave them meaning.
Christianism is disconnected from the faith and tradition that gave it birth. When you see or hear something under the banner of ‘Christian’ that does not seem to reflect the example of Jesus or the teaching of Christ … you may have wandered into the wilderness of Christianism. It uses all the same words that you know … but in foreign and contradictory ways.
Christianism is several degrees removed from the teaching and example of Jesus. It begins in the formation/formalizing of those things (one degree) – then it takes on an authoritarian/hierarchical structure (two degrees) – then, and this is the big one, it is married to power (government/military) so now we are three degrees from the origin. This new orientation becomes solidified/codified as a thing that has its own identity: “Christian” becomes a category by which you can know who is in and who is out – the saved and the lost (fourth degree). This is where bad things done by ‘good people’ can be justified as being beneficial to ‘the cause’ or ‘our side’.
The final stage is when ‘Christian’ is an identity that helps to distinguish us (in-group) from others, NOT depending on ones obedience to the central tenants, following the teachings of the founders, or even knowledge of the distinctions that signify identity to the group. At this point the signifier ‘Christian’ is no longer anchored to anything that it was originally grounded in and no longer connected to the very thing that gave it life and health. ‘Christian’ becomes a floating signifier and is un-tethered from its proverbial mooring (fifth degree).
We are watching a ‘historical drift’. This is how Sarah Palin can say that water-boarding is how we baptize terrorist. This one statement has it all! We are the in-group. We do this to people with unilateral/coercive power. It is then connected to sacred/holy acts. And finally, we assume that we are doing God’s work when we do things that are opposite/counter to the example of what we say is the incarnation/revelation of our very God.
When something is this far (5 degrees) away from its original intent, folks can start to ask, “how is this connected to that?” The generous/gracious response is ‘loosely’. The concerned response is ‘they are not connected’. The critical response is ‘it is counter to the origin’.
When you add an ‘ism’ to anything it is in danger of becoming a Frankenstein creature that takes on a monstrous life of its own. Examples of this in the U.S. context involve:
These have all become master signifiers that identify an in/out boundary but which no longer re-present the original meaning they once stood for. Our world is full of markers/groups/identities/labels that are so far from what they originally meant that they are not longer tied (tethered) to the thing that used to anchor them.
My concern is that ‘Christian’ no longer signifies one who follows Christ and has instead become an ‘ism’ that designates an us/them distinction that has nothing to do with the teachings or model of Jesus. I get why people are being inventive and using ‘Christ-follower’ or attempting to follow ‘the way of Jesus’. Cynics will mock all they want, but if these innovative monikers are an attempt to protest or defy the ‘ism’ of the dominant expression … I say we ask more questions instead of making snarky and dismissive comments.
They might be onto something.
Interesting uses of Christianism started appearing between 2003-2005
Process theologies and Liberation theologies both provide a valuable resource – even for those who do not subscribe to them wholesale.
You don’t have to be an adherent of these approaches to hear the critique that they raise and allow those questions to interrogate the given order of things.
In the forward to their famous book Process Theology: an introductory exposition, Cobb and Griffin outline a number of conceptions of God that Process does not affirm. The fourth example they provide introduces the problem:
God as Sanctioner of the Status Quo. This connotation characterizes a strong tendency in all religions. It is supported by the three previous notions. The notion of God as Cosmic Moralist has suggested that God is primarily interested in order. The notion of God as Unchangeable Absolute has suggested God’s establishment of an unchangeable order for the world. And the notion of God as Controlling Power has suggested that the present order exists be cause God wills its existence. In that case, to be obedient to God is to preserve the status quo. Process theology denies the existence of this God.
It is going to be important to hear the questions this raises: is God primarily concerned with order? Is God the source of that order? Or is God providing something else that challenges those established structures which limit and take away people’s ability to live fully and prosper?
They introduce the Process notion of God:
And, far from sanctioning the status quo, recognition of essential relatedness to this God implies a continual creative transformation of that which is received from the past, in the light of the divinely received call forward, to actualize novel possibilities. Although this divine power is persuasive rather than controlling, it is nevertheless finally the most effective power in reality. In Whitehead’s words: “The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe.” (Adventures in Ideas 354.)
To classic virtues (properties of being) like truth, beauty and goodness, Process adds adventure and zest precisely because of who God is! The addition of adventure and zest speak to movement (change), progression and novelty. Process, if nothing else, fully recognizes the validity of time and change.
Hence, no type of social order is to be maintained if it no longer tends to maximize the enjoyment of the members of the society. Also, it is impossible for any form of social order to continue indefinitely to be instrumentally good. God, far from being the Sanctioner of the Status Quo, is the source of some of the chaos in the world. “If there is to be progress beyond limited ideals, the course of history by way of escape must venture along the borders of chaos in its substitution of higher for lower types of order.” (Process and Reality 169.) (God is said to be the source of only some of the chaos, since only some of it can in principle lead to a higher type of order and thereby a richer form of enjoyment.)
God, in a Process perspective, provides – indeed is the source of – some of the chaos that calls into question the status quo and challenges the established order that limits the prospering of creatures.
If you think that God likes the way things are and wants to keep them the same … you may not be worshiping the God of the Bible.
This was brought to my memory when I encoutered an interesting nugget at the back of another book that had nothing to do with Process thought. Terry Eagleton in After Theory illuminates an interesting Biblical concept.
In a revolutionary reversal, true power springs from powerlessness. As St Paul writes in Corinthians: `God chose what is weakest in the world to shame the strong … even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.’ The whole of Judaeo-Christian thought is cast in this ironic, paradoxical, up-ending mould.
The wretched of the earth are known to the Old Testament as the anawim, those whose desperate plight embodies the failure of the political order. The only valid image of the future is the failure of the present. The anawim, who are the favoured children of Yahweh, have no stake in the current set-up, and so are an image of the future in their very destitution. The dispossessed are a living sign of the truth that the only enduring power is one anchored in an acknowledgement of failure. Any power which fails to recognize this fact will be enfeebled in a different sense, fearfully defending itself against the victims of its own arrogance. Here, as often, paranoia has much to recommend it. The exercise of power is child’s play compared to the confession of weakness.
Terry Eagleton. After Theory (Kindle Locations 1882-1892). Kindle Edition.
What do we do with those aspects of the established order which don’t fit – or even shame – the established order? Do we want to sweep the anawim off the streets and hide them from view in order conceal the fact that the current system does not work for everyone?
Do we put down the dissenters? Do we turn a blind eye to ‘the poor’ so as to not acknowledge that the bell-curve is inverted and seems to be more of a trough?
Before doing so, we may want to consider this:
The authors of the New Testament see Jesus as a type of the anawim. He is dangerous because he has no stake in the present set-up. Those who speak up for justice will be done away with by the state. Society will wreak its terrible vengeance on the vulnerable. (Kindle Locations 1893-1894).
This idea cast a strange light on the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ when it talks about God’s will being done on earth and forgiving debts …
Eagleton uses the Book of Isaiah to make his big point about the failures of the system:
The Book of Isaiah is strong stuff for these post-revolutionary days. It is only left in hotel rooms because nobody bothers to read it. If those who deposit it there had any idea what it contained, they would be well advised to treat it like pornography and burn it on the spot.
As far as revolution goes, the human species divides between those who see the world as containing pockets of misery in an ocean of increasing well-being, and those who see it as containing pockets of well-being in an ocean of increasing misery. It also divides between those who agree with Schopenhauer that it would probably have been better for a great many people in history if they had never been born, and those who regard this as lurid leftist hyperbole. This, in the end, is perhaps the only political division which really counts.
(Kindle Locations 1916-1920).
In response, I would ask:
These are questions that both Process and Liberation theologies ask that need to be evaluated even if one does not subscribe to those schools of thought.
The answers will impact both how one views God and how one participates in the world.
The Quest for the Historical Jesus is a topic that I am both annoyed and intrigued by. Chalk this reaction up to my evangelical upbringing but I am like a high-schooler in the midst of drama.
“They drive me nuts, I hate listening to them talk! … What did they say? Tell me everything.”
I am both attracted to and repelled by the work and findings of this movement.
Before we go any further, lets see how others Justo L. González introduces it:
Historical Jesus: Often contrasted with “the Christ of faith,” the phrase “historical Jesus” is somewhat ambiguous, for sometimes it refers to those things about Jesus that can be proved through rigorous historical research, and sometimes it simply means the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The phrase itself, “historical Jesus,” was popularized by the title of the English translation of a hook by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910). In this book, Schweitzer reviewed a process, begun by Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768), which sought to discover the Jesus behind the Gospels by means of the newly developed tools of historical research. After reviewing this quest of almost two centuries, Schweitzer concluded that what each of the scholars involved had discovered was not in fact Jesus of Nazareth as he lived in the first century, but rather a modern image of Jesus, as much informed by modern bourgeois perspectives as by historical research itself.
Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1905-1916). Kindle Edition.
González goes on to explain that much of the quest was abandoned after Schweitzer’s findings but has recently reappeared in a minimalist expression (what are the bare facts that can be validated?).
Grenz is clear about this historical quest – that its proponents think Jesus:
All of this was “projected onto him by his disciples, the Gospel writers and the early church. The true historical Jesus, in contrast, preached a simple, largely ethical message as capsulized in the dictum of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of humankind.”
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1089-1093). Kindle Edition.
A modern manifestation of this quest is seen in the Jesus Seminar.
You can hear our podcast about with John Dominic Crossan from this past May.
I am deeply indebted to those in Historical Jesus research. I never knew any of this stuff (like Empire) as an evangelical pastor. It has been both eye-opening and disorienting (not to mention the theological whiplash).
I have problems with so many of the conclusions reached but am so grateful for the depth of engagement and sincerity of scholarship. My faith has been enriched and informed in ways I could never have imagined.
There is just something about the whole enterprise that gets under my skin and rubs me the wrong way. It is possible to be grateful for a pebble in your shoe as you journey?
Even as I write this I am thinking, “I don’t like where you take this… but I need to know what you know. I just want to draw different conclusions than you do.”
This, of course, is the danger of venturing outside your comfort zone.
Artwork for this series by Jesse Turri
Fideism is one of the most alluring, and thus, potentially dangerous developments on the theological landscape in our lifetime.
Fideism: The view that matters of religious and theological truth must be accepted by faith apart from the exercise of reason. In its extreme, fideism suggests that the use of reason is misleading. Less extreme fideists suggest that reason is not so much misleading as it is simply unable to lead to truths about the nature of God and *salvation.
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 552-554). Kindle Edition.
Fideism has been around for a long time but it has taken on a new tenacity recently.
The 19th Century was a tough one for ‘reasoned faith’. Those bastions that survived into the 20th Century were not left unaltered. In fact, since WWII the effect of those descended from who Paul Ricoeur dubbed ‘The Master of Suspicion’ – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx … and some add Darwin – has grown and intensified.*
Part of ‘reasoned faith’ is that it had to adjust and modify. It had to account for new data (scientific and sociological) and, more importantly, it had to stop playing by its own rules.
The rules of engagement changed. Faith no longer got a free pass. The ‘church’ was no longer running the uni-versity. Fields like science had grown up since the Copernican revolution was no longer afraid of the church and began to act like the were running the show now.
Modern christianity had to choose whether to
I have written about this as modern christianity’s temptations.
A subtle form of this impulse toward fideism is simply to speak of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisterium”. Science and reason take care of their areas and faith takes care of its area.
Those who take this impulse further retreat into what Wittgenstein would call ‘private language games’. They take on a formal defense of the given-ness of faith say that faith doesn’t have to be reasonable. Those two things are just speaking different languages and that science of reason doesn’t even have the ability to understand what faith is doing. That is why neither can even provide a critique let alone a correction. Religion is thus except from an investigation-integration from outside.
I would argue that what we believe in private has massive implication for how we participate in the public arena.
We can see this battle line in the recent Hobby Lobby decision from the Supreme Court.
Let me give an example from history – courtesy of another ‘F’ word in our pocket dictionary: filioque. A Latin term literally meaning “and the Son,”
The addition of this phrase by the Western (Latin) branch of the church in the in the 6th to the 4th Century creeds – without the permission of the Eastern churches – would eventually lead to the schism of the two groups in the 11th Century.
This schism is notable enough but 500 years later, in what would become colonial missions by western europeans, the issue had real consequences. As both Catholic and Protestant missionaries sailed around the world to convert native populations, the filioque clause would answer a significant question.
Could the Spirit of God be at work ahead of the missionaries arrival? The answer was a resounding ‘no’. The Spirit proceeded not just from the Father (and thus potentially outside of the work of the Son) but ‘from the Son also’. It was believed then that the work of the Spirit followed (proceeded not preceded) the proclamation of the Christian gospel.
There were minority schools (some Jesuits) who disagreed – but they were subsequently reprimanded.
Some may hear about the filioque clause and think “how would we even know who proceeded when? And how exactly are three people ‘one God’ anyway? This is all just speculation and minutia – like angels dancing on the head of the needle!”
Speculation it might be. But both in history and in our present societal unrest what folks believe in private really does impact how that participate in public.
This is why we have to care about fideism. I understand the desire to preserve the past and stake out ones territory for the given-ness of the tradition. It is a way of protecting what is deeply valued and – let’s be honest – in grave danger.
Those who are attracted to fideism look at the evolution of their religion and the disappearance of treasured practices and think “I don’t even recognize this contemporary mutation as the same thing that we inherited from those who came before!”
… and that might be true. But , as I am arguing in the series, we live in a world come of age and The Faith both needs to and is bound to change.
* another way of saying this is to list the fields of psychology, philosophy, sociology, and science.
This is how Catherine Keller begins her chapter in PostColonial Theology. [Keller podcast]
The people that I know who love, quote, and believe the Bible the most happen to be the least aware of the Bible’s concern with /critique of Empire.
What is fascinating to me is that those who are most unaware of the nature of the American Empire (Imperial reign) are also those who claim to take the Bible the most seriously.
Whenever I bring this up, some who will question ‘How can this be so?” While others will say “What are you making such a big deal about?”
Here is how it works: The biblical narrative details many empires – all of whom have a devastating effect on the people of God.
The Exodus narrative, the Babylonian captivity and the Roman occupation are all examples of Empire. The Bible is through-and-through saturated with imperialism and the disastrous effects that it has on those who are faithful to God.
This is where is gets tough: Moses, Daniel and Jesus all suffered (and subsequently overcame) Imperial regimes. The Bible is saturated with themes of ‘Empire’ and resistance.
The problem is that those who are most imbedded in the Empire (and believe the Bible) are the most unaware of this theme and may have no idea that the Bible that they believe so much has anything to say about the issue what so ever!
If you have never heard of ‘Empire / Imperialism’ then the Bible reads a certain way which allows you to be complicit in the current American imperial impulse and actually believe that you are serving the Kingdom of God by participating in that said structure.
The shocker is when you find out that Moses, Daniel and Jesus were on the underbelly of the beast and were figures of resistance seeking to undermine the established order – the systems, structures and institutions of repression and containment.
It can be eye-opening!~
There is not a single part of the New Testament that is not haunted by the shadow of Empire and Imperial domination.
One might as well not even read the Gospels or the Book of Revelation outside of this lens!!
As long as we are on the subject, it is impossible to talk about the Cross of Christ or Paul’s diatribe in Romans 1 without a thorough understanding of Empire. Take a minute and think about what a cross was – an instrument of intimidation and public terror reserved for those who threatened that stability of the Empire (like sedition).
I might go as far as to say that Empire and Imperial pressures dominate and dictate every facet of the Bible and especially the New Testament.
Here is the shocker: those who take the Bible the most seriously (or least read it the most) may know the least about this aspect of its original context …
… and may be those what are most blind to the current role that their nationalistic government plays in the world.
Think about this: if you do not see the role that Egypt, Babylon and Rome played in the Biblical narrative … by what lens would be able to see the role that post-Cold War America plays in the global War on Terror?
I don’t think that you could.
Here is the bottom line: The people of God have frequently been oppressed and dominated.
Scripture tells us of their resistance and deliverance.
If, then, the people who claim to be ‘with God’ are complicit in the oppression and marginalization of those who claim to be fellow believers ‘in Christ’ … let alone those who come from a different tradition…
… you can see the problem.
Empire dominates everything. Domination is actually the Modus Operandi of Imperial regimes. The methods are predictable:
The Bible testifies to this and to the resistance of it. The great irony of history is that so many Bible believing people both don’t know this – and subsequently participate (even complicetly) in the continuation of this oppressive system.
The Bible tells us that Moses, Daniel and Jesus all suffered under Imperial oppression. We need to make sure that we don’t use the Bible to defend or extend any Nationalistic/ Empire ambitions in the world that we live in via the systems that we participate in and support.
For further examination:
Beyond the Spirit of Empire – Rieger, Sung, Miguez [Rieger podcast]
Arrogance of Nations: Paul and Empire – Elliott [Elliot podcast]
God and Empire – Crossan [Crossan podcast]
Jesus and Empire – Horsley
New Testament and Empire – Carter [Carter podcast]
If interested, here is a blog series I wrote about social imaginaries (nationalism)
In case one would think that I made too much out of the absence of this topic in certain circles, it is illustrative that neither Grenz nor Gonzalez – the two resources I am utilizing in the series – have an entry for ‘Empire’ in their dictionaries. They do however both address ‘Empiricism’ (as in ‘empirical evidence’).