Biblical Illiteracy, Cultural Critique & Socio-Politcal Engagement

As one who works daily in the cauldron of ministry with the next generation of social, political, economic spiritual leaders (college students), I am well aware of the level of engagement or disengagement that many students have with the issues of the day. I also have an opportunity to evaluate, anecdotally, the level of biblical literacy that students coming from an evangelical background bring with them into college.

It is an understatement of the highest degree to assert that the current generation of college student evince a high level of Biblical illiteracy. Though many of them have been raised within the context of the church, have participated in missions, church youth groups, Sunday School, and numerous other church related activities, most of them do not have anything remotely resembling a worldview based on their Christian commitments, beyond that demanded by a cultural Christianity. They know, or are at least vaguely aware, that the Bible has something to say about sexual ethics – chiefly that believers ought to abstain from sexual activity until married. They also know that the Christians are to be generous, kind, share their faith, avoid lying and other overt sins. In many ways though, there consciousness, their life choices, their politics, their cultural engagements and social relations (including their sexual behavior) is not much different that of their peers.

One the other hand, we are in the midst of a dynamic season in the life of the larger church, as many pastors, theologians, and lay people are having conversations about how to revitalize what has become for many a dead orthodoxy or lifeless faith. There is a great deal of critique of current church culture which seems to be in many ways disconnected from the every day of life. There is a vitality among many, especially in the “millennial” generation who are excited about engagement in missions, social justice issues, diversity and multi-ethnicity and are examining how the gospel is connected with these questions. There is tumult in the church around critical issues, which often breaks down around geographical, social, and financial lines.

I am excited about how engaged and creative many are in wrestling with these issues, but I am also concerned that much of this activity and concerned, driven by the Spirit though it is, is being laid atop a very low level of Biblical knowledge, which leads to a social and political engagement rooted not in the gospel, but in sociology or political science. The thing is, we’ve been here before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new religious Spirit driven movement was being birthed (Pentecostalism). The American church at large was orthodox in their theology and yet the issues of the Progressive movement (women’s rights, social justice, labor reform) were pressing concerns for the church of the day. Many American churches actively moved to engage these issues, or even took the lead in them. In time, many of those churches abandoned orthodoxy and are now, in terms of relevance, numbers and scriptural fidelity, are mere shadows of their former selves. Other churches retreated from any involvement in social issues, became proudly known as fundamentalists, then not a derogatory term, but one that denoted fidelity to the fundamental claims of the gospel. These believers retreated from engagement in the public sphere, from the university and in many ways from socity and were the forebears and progenitors of today’s evangelicals.

I do not think that we are repeating history. In fact I believe that we are in many ways on more solid ground than our predecessors. Evangelicals have in the years since the mainline/fundamentalist split, developed seminaries, worked to engage social issues more actively, and thought long and hard about how the gospel has social implication. However, we are at a disadvantage in that our predecessors, both mainline and fundamentalist, were much more thoroughly versed in scripture than we are. Likewise American society shared a common language of Christian ethics which provided the social apologetic for many of the reform movements. It was very possible to hold to an orthodox view of scripture, of miracles, of Jesus, and yet remain socially engaged. Many in the millennial generation however, are illiterate concerning the Bible. They do not know how to think Christianly about their own lives (which was the concern of fundamentalists) much less about society. What will be the impact of a generation of Biblically illiterate believers charging into the fray to engage society and transform the church?

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Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

There’s a lot out there about the “new evangelical left,” the “emerging church,” and new missional communities that are seeking to embody the gospel in new ways and live out the mission of Jesus in the world. I’m painting in hugely broad strokes, but many of these churches share in common a skepticism / critique of church as it has been practiced and especially of the political activism of the religious right. It is an easy to blog surf and find some church, group, preacher, or random know-it-all with a laptop (guilty!!) spouting off about how the church has ceased to be relevant, how abortion and gay marriage are important but not really, how the church needs to apologize for so many things, and on and on. There is a good deal out there about how the church needs to deal with issues of poverty, social justice, and oppression and complaint that the church hasn’t done enough. And again there is usually a call for the church to apologize.

Theologically speaking, there is ample room for the emerging dialogue to take place under the umbrella of orthodox evangelicalism, defined broadly as belief that: 1) the Bible is true, and authoritative and we ought to follow it, 2) Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior, 3) return of Christ in judgment, 4) umm something else that I’m probably forgetting. The current movement though is often self described as being “prophetic” because of the ways that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus himself spoke about the poor and the marginalized. They see themselves as standing in that stream seeking to “be the church” in a prophetic kind of way rather than just “proclaiming” the gospel in a way that is disconnected from the day to day lives of the average person.

Socially speaking the movement seems to be dominated by White middle class, college educated people who wear black rimmed glasses and use Macs instead of PC’s. They tend to hang out in coffee shops and have churches with one or two word names like “Quest” or “Missio Dei” that obscure more than they reveal. They care about multiethnicity and try to actively pursue it. They have “creative class” jobs and live in gentrifying neighborhoods that have local food markets. They know what arugula is.

In other words, they fit neatly the typical demographic of liberal Democrats except for their pesky clinging to evangelical religion. But honestly, much of what is discussed in the blogosphere and bandied about in circles of these new evangelicals is hardly distinguishable from the Democratic Party platform. Without intending to, their prophetic voice on issues like abortion is suspiciously reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Against abortion? Don’t have one!” Of course, it much more nuanced than I am portraying it, but there is a distinctive unwillingness to be notably and publicly FOR anything typically associated with recent evangelical politics and a concomitant willingness to be AGAINST anything championed by the Republican Party.

How prophetic though is it to align oneself with the prevailing currents of social and political thought? Has the Christian right spoken only a “negative and condemning message,” and if even they have, isn’t that also in the prophetic tradition? John the Baptist was not exactly sitting down for a conversation with those he preached repentance to, and Jeremiah would likely have been treated for clinical depression based on his frequent weeping and lament over the sinful state of his nation. Does being a faithful follower of Jesus mean that you support the notion of Universal Health Care Coverage?