Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age: Part 1

It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this.  These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.

cathedral
An empty cathedral. The future of the American church?

The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!

But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.

Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.

By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.

This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.

We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.

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Give me neither poverty or riches…

Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30.7-9

These words, so powerful and so true, should be inscribed on the heart if not the wall of every Christian, especially in the wealth and prosperity of American society. Indeed this proverb most profoundly encapsulates the very heart of what have been the most troublesome and persistent problems in our society and in the church. So much of the injustice, racism, environmental and economic exploitation that has plagued our society finds its root in a failure to be satisfied with, “the food that I need.” Scripture tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and that those who desire to get rich fall into a trap and are ensnared by evil, and the Proverbs are filled with admonitions like this one against the deceitfulness, transience, and emptiness of wealth.

Despite this it seems the chief day to day preoccupation of believers (much like everyone else) is the acquisition of more and better. In fact purveyors of the much maligned prosperity gospel have built a theological house around the notion that God not only wants to meet our needs, but desires for every believer to be materially wealthy.

Prosperity preachers, maligned though they may be, are not the first or the only to promote such views. Indeed it could be said that the scorn heaped upon them by mainstream evangelicals is a bit hypocritical when one drives into the parking lot of the typical suburban evangelical church and observes the well coiffed parishioners leave half million dollar suburban homes in $40,000 SUV’s to worship in sanctuaries plush with thousands of dollars worth of carpet, and tens of thousands of dollars in the latest multimedia equipment. The rich always decry the indulgences of the poor.

Prosperity preaching is in some ways merely a continuation of what has always been latent in American evangelicalism: an equation of God’s blessing with material goods. After all the massive prosperity of the United States was built on free land (taken from natives) and free labor (taken from Africans) the use of which was often endorsed by protestant Christians.

In any event, as a observer of immigrant culture in the context of the immigrant church, this correlation has caught on quite readily. It is an unfortunately easy leap to make; the pursuit and achievement of the American dream is often perceived (if not overtly stated) to be the best way to be a good Christian. And while it is easy to see and critique it in the Asian church, it is quite apparent in other places as well. After all the Christianity they practice is the Christianity to which they were converted.

Chingoos II

Ladies and gentlemen, a blast from the past

A while ago I wrote about the theology of friendship, or rather the lack thereof in the contemporary church. Recently a conversation with a dear Korean brother sparked some additional thoughts about friendship.

He mentioned that he thought, until he came to the U.S. very recently, that the idea of friendship was universal, and that in Korea to say that you are someone’s friend is to be entirely devoted to them. A friend would share the last piece of bread or even underwear (his words not mine) if need be. As we talked about this over dinner, my American born Korean friends and I shared with him a bit about how friendship works in the U.S. and I compared the type of friendship he described as being closer to what we say about family – about our brothers and sisters. He responded with disdainful amazement. Family, he said, is not your choice, and therefore does not carry the same weight as friendship.

This interaction could be easily chalked up to cultural differences, and indeed it is. Many Africans are surprised by the American idea of setting an appointment with a friend, and would think nothing of walking hand in hand with a friend of the same sex down the street. There is, however, more to it than just difference in cultures and there is perhaps something that can be learned theologically from the way different groups conceptualize friendship.

In Jesus’ last address to his disciples before his crucifixion he says pointedly, “I no longer call you friends, because I have told you everything.” Before this however he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” To my western American ears, this sounds absolutely antithetical to my understanding of what a friend is. To place friendship and obedience in the same sentence seems almost heretical. In fact friends are usually those people who pointedly DON’T tell us what to do and to whom we have no obligation to obey. The greatest love, Jesus says, is demonstrated when a man lays down his life for his friends. I would venture to say that this goes far beyond sharing underwear.

The question that naturally arises is whether Jesus’ words apply only to the unique nature of his relationship to the disciples or if they are more broadly applicable to friendship. Indeed I believe this is the presupposition most of us bring to the text. Yet there is nothing in the text that directly states that this is his assumption, and throughout scripture we find friendship elevated to a high position as in the case of David and Jonathan.

What are we to do with this? It seems to me that friendship is one place where American culture has departed far from the way it is understood in scripture. This is itself is not inherently problematic, because scripture was written in a certain cultural context with assumptions that are not immediately transferable to the American situation. However, by demoting friendship, or rather elevating other relationships, like marriage, we have placed more burden on the institution of marriage than it was intended to support. Single people are thereby consigned to the margins of church life and either pitied for their status (women) or held in suspicion (men). Is there a way in which non-marital emotionally intimate relationship, i.e. friendship, can be restored to a proper place in Christian understanding and practice? If such a understanding of friendship could be restored it might provide an option for those persons that are commanded by scripture to live in abstinence, and yet who yearn for emotional intimacy which is denied them by the current ways relationships are handled within the church.

Here’s to the Ordinary Christian

This post is about ordinary Christians.

Not that there is any sort of person who is ever really ordinary.

But there are ordinary Christians who simply want to follow Jesus.  They are people like so many folks at my church who prayersimply want to faithfully follow Jesus.  They don’t know anything about blogging.  They aren’t riled up about questions of what Bible translation to use, or the proper English translation of some Greek phrase, or issues of “social justice” (whatever that means).

They go to church.  They pray.  They give. They sing in the choir. They try to honor God the best way they can.

So often as a “professional Christian worker” ministering in the university context and with access to all the latest and greatest theological, eschatological, and philosophical debates and questions, it becomes very easy to grow arrogant and dismissive of those who do not.  Why is this?  Quite honestly it is because we believe that greater knowledge equates to greater spiritual maturity or spirituality.  We believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary.   Yet, if this were true, one would find the most faithful, most mature, and most biblically literate Christians among those who have the most access.  The testimony of history and indeed of scripture tells us that this is not true.

Much is said about Jesus’ ministry to the poor.  I don’t know if it is so accurate to describe his ministry in that way.  There were, to be sure, poor among his followers.  But the bulk of his followers were what we might call working class or middle class (though such classes were functionally poor in Roman society, socially they fit the description).  They were people who were lectured to by the more learned among them about the hows and whys of following the covenant.  And they too were looking for the messiah to come.  It was among the most educated classes that the greatest disputes and arguments about theology broke out.

The arguments among the teachers of the Law are much like the arguments today among the blogosphere as people debate back and forth the fine points of the law.  We split hairs over exceedingly minor interpretive issues in the Greek text which make absolutely no difference to the maturity or discipleship of Christians for example.

I grew up in a church full of everyday, ordinary Christians.  I did not have the benefit of a seminary trained clerical staff, a full time paid youth minister, a library full of books on Christian doctrine.  I had rather, faithful Christians who loved the Lord, who cared deeply about seeing that we grew up in the fear of the Lord and had a reverence for scripture.  They wanted me to be filled with Holy Spirit and to live a life pleasing to God.  They laid the foundation for my faith.  They were serious believers.  They obeyed the Bible as best they could.

I tip my hat to them.  Ordinary spirit filled saints who prayed, preached, and taught me the way of salvation with little more than a KJV Bible, a United Gospel Press Sunday school book, and a decrepit totally useless blackboard.

Why the TNIV’s demise makes me happy…

Well, it doesn’t really; I mean, not in any “real” way.  As I said before, I never liked the TNIV and don’t care for the NIV either for that matter.    Part of this is frankly because I tend to prefer “word for word” translation over “dynamic equivalence” that the NIV and TNIV employs.  The other reason is because, as I said in my comments on the preceding post, I believe the publication of the TNIV as well as it’s withdrawal has more to do with profits than anything else.  But allow me to lay out a bit more my larger issue with English language Bible translation.

1) Arguments over Bible translations (whether NIV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, etc.) provide cover for Christian intellectual elitism

Christianity is a translated religion.  Unlike Islam, we do not hold to any particular language being the revealed language of God and scripture.  Therefore the words of Jesus (perhaps spoken in Aramaic) were translated into Greek without losing their potency.  Reading the Bible in French or English or Twi or Russian does not represent a deficiency, but the heart of the missionary impulse.  However the way debates over translation occurs communicates that unless one is fluent in the so-called “original languages” one cannot really know what God is saying. This is inherently elitist as the vast majority of Christians in the world who have ever lived and who currently do live may not even be literate, much less experts in ancient Greek.  Is their understanding of God, ethical practice, and Christian maturity therefore inevitably compromised?

This is not to say that translation with great care is unimportant.  It is very important, but if we communicate, however unintentionally, that you “really need to read it in the Greek to understand” we inevitably establish a hierarchy to which only an elite and privileged few have access.

2) The proliferation of English translations in the last 100 years has done NOTHING to advance Christian maturity or knowledge.

Faithful translation is important as I have said, and that has ostensibly been the motive for updating translations, in addition to keeping pace with new or better source documents that have come to light.  But is hardly evident that these multiple versions have done anything to increase the amount of scripture knowledge or biblical practice.  Indeed I would venture to guess (anecdotally to be sure) that those Christian “neanderthals” who hold onto the KJV probably have  more extensive Biblical knowledge than many others.

3) The proliferation of English translation is driven by profit and is evidence of an exceedingly materialistic self referential culture.

Many translations are copyrighted.  Book publishers make lots of money selling Bibles.  There is great incentive to come out with a “NEW & IMPROVED” version every few years.  We buy them because we can, and because we want a version that “fits” us.  This is related to my last point.

4) (Not the last point but related to the previous one) The English language has not changed so much in the last hundred years and certainly last fifty years to justify the new translations.

The 400 year dominance (and continued strength) of the KJV meant that much of the language was indeed very different than contemporary English and quite opaque to some (though not so much as to be unintelligible. After all it is still a leading version and in some ways superior; KJV English conveys continuing present tense better than contemporary English) and therefore made some sense to update.  Since then… not so much.

5) The proliferation of translations is in some ways a capitulation to the Christian disengagement with shaping culture.

The chief justification for many modern versions is to faithful translate the scripture into “today’s English.”  Well this is fine as far as it goes. BUT, none of these many translations, partially due to their abundance and partially due to their linguistic poverty, actually affect the culture into which they are cast.

The KJV, for all its flaws (and they are many) was written in a language that though long “obsolete” retains a poetry and magnificence that remains unsurpassed, much like the language of Shakespeare (written in the same era).  Many contemporary versions, though technically superior, frankly lack any beauty and therefore are less powerful in their effect in shaping culture, both within and outside of the church.

Now it can be argued that aesthetic value is less important than accuracy, but I disagree.  Aesthetics have a truth value all their own and while “though I walk through the darkest valley” may be a more technically accurate translation, it does not speak in the same way as “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and is therefore lest likely to be memorized, or to shape our worldview.  Bad writing cannot be covered up by saying “the translation is technically accurate.”

Additionally the multitude of translations means that Christians have lost something very important: a common language, which is important in creating and reinforcing and yea verily, shaping our common dialogue and culture.

The massive irresponsibility of my blogging absence explained

I don’t have very many readers to this blog, and likely have far fewer now that I’ve neglected to update in nearly 3 months (or is it 4?), but those few readers ought to know that I have not been entirely unaware or absent from blogdom.

Indeed, as St. Jude would say, I have had every intention of writing, but have often found myself at odds with myself over the content that I want to communicate. It is rather difficult at times for me to put into words the concerns that I have had and to clearly lay out some of the recent thoughts I have had about various topics political, theological, ecclesiological, and otherwise. So… just as a way of whetting (or perhaps dampening) the appetite, here are a few things I’m thinking of writing on:

Are ALL Asian American Christians sellouts
(a response to the post at nextegenerasianchurch)

Further thoughts on women in ministry leadership (an exploration of history, hermeneutics, and sociopolitical considerations)

Black Asian dialogue (just wanting to know if we have anything to teach each other)

Are there any other suggestions?? Asian Christians and homosexuality? Preaching in the Asian church? Am I a sellout for going to an Asian church?

Christ against the multiculturalists

Higher education in the United States and indeed throughout the so-called “West” is dominated by multiculturalism, with the “hard” sciences, professional schools, and business schools being somewhat the exception. It is an unquestioned assumption within the storied halls of our most elite and least elite colleges and universities that the dominant narrative of Western culture is insufficient to educate students. Their biases, assumptions, and worldviews must be challenged, deconstructed and hopefully re-assembled into something resembling coherence.

Concurrent with these assumptions has come a rejection of what had been the core content of a “liberal” education – namely becoming conversant with the thoughts, ideas, and stories of Western culture (i.e. dead White men) and a departure from what had been the intent of such an education (the discovery of ‘truth’). Heretofore marginalized voices (women, minorities) are given privileged status as a consequence of their having been deemed historically oppressed. In history especially (my field), the European explorers, philosophers and missionaries of old have been transformed into apostles of intolerance, genocide, and unremitting oppression. Simply put, dead White guys are out of fashion and truth as a governing or transcendent concept is not even really talked about.

Of course this shift represents a major challenge for Christians in the academy since we follow a religion that both makes transcendent governing truth claims and whose most significant theologians happen to have been mostly dead White guys. It doesn’t help that the “West” is popularly associated with Christianity, notwithstanding the fact that Christianity did indeed originate in the Near East, its most famous early theologians (Augustine and Tertullian) were Africans, and the Christian legacy of India, Ethiopia, and Iraq is far older than that of Ireland. It follows easily that the worst crimes of the western world are laid at the feet of the theology, practice, and indeed even the existence of the Christian faith.

Enter: multiculturalism and the gospel of relativism. According to an article in First Thingsthe task of

a student in the multicultural classroom is to grant unquestioned authority to those who come from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds. You have to do this because, you will learn, because Western culture has exploited every other culture, and your experiences are so shaped by Western culture that you cannot question those who criticize you. And thus you will become a good cultural leftist (which is the shape liberalism takes in the academy), or, if you are not convinced by these arguments, you will learn how to fake it for the sake of getting a good grade

The article continues:

All of this is profoundly anti-Christian, which is why Christian students are typically the most radical questioners of higher education. Because Christians believe in a universal human nature, they also believe they can make universal truth claims about human nature. That does not mean that every statement about human nature is true.

And so it is that Christians hold as profoundly and universally true the very thing that sticks in the craw of post-modern cultural relativists. Thus Christian students, albeit thoroughly unversed and ill prepared to “give an answer for the hope that lies within them”, they are nonetheless adherents of a gospel that declares that truth does indeed exist; truth about God, the meaning of life, the condition of man, and man himself. Further, they hold to the notion that these truths are not culturally bound, nor limited by time, but are always and in every place profoundly and fundamentally true.

It is true though that the lens of multiculturalism has brought a needed corrective to the myopia of the Christian church in the United States. It is perhaps a function of our relative isolation from people of different languages and ethnicity that the universality and thus the infinite translatability of the Christian religion has been lost on us. It is a good thing that churches are wrestling with questions of multi-ethnicity and culture. We must be careful though as we wrestle not to adopt the singularly unChristian, dare I say anti-Christian academy that reflexively dismisses the achievements of Christian civilization while highlighting its sins and lionizing those presumed to be victims.

It is no small thing that it is only in the Christian west that human freedom as a concept rooted in the Biblical view of all people being made in God’s image bore the fruit of eliminating slavery, or that women have enjoyed the relative equality of status that they do. When the West failed, it is perhaps not the failure of Christianity, but only an indication that the Christianization of society did not go far enough.