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.

Missing Pieces

I just finished reading the very interesting IVP book Deep Church by Jim Belcher.  I’ve also been tracking a conversation, as well as contributing to the commentary on Dr. John Stackhouse’s blog.  These unrelated activities and my own interaction in rather diverse settings of life and ministry have once again stirred my thinking about several issues.

Stackhouses blog asks the question about how academia, Christian academia in particularly, and Regent specifically, become more diverse in its faculty representation.  He contends that the presence of other voices, notably women and “underrepresented” ethnic minorities necessarily enhances both the research and the teaching function of the Christian university.  He is concerned about those voices that are not at the table.

Belcher is addressing a completely different set of questions and issues.  He seeks to chart a “third way” course between what he terms the traditionalist model of church and the emerging / emergent church conversation.  He works very hard to be fair in both his critiques and affirmations of the respective weaknesses and strengths of each.

How are these two things related?

Well in some very real sense they are entirely unrelated to one another, except that they both seek to address perceived or real problems in the evangelical Christian community, and both believe that there is some real value in listening to heretofore unheard voices, whether those be women (Stackhouse’s concern) or people in various “camps” of evangelicalism (Belcher’s concern).  There is something else that unites them though, and that is the extreme lack of awareness in any meaningful sense that their entire conversation is largely irrelevant to,  unimportant to, and ignorant of the concerns of many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of believers in the United States alone who would consider themselves to be orthodox theologically and quite likely evangelical doctrinally. I speak of course of the many ethnic minority communities in the US, to say nothing of the global church.

I do not believe that either Belcher or Stackhouse is ignorant of this entirely and I am certain (or as reasonably certain as Christian charity requires) that each of them would agree that such awareness is important and that we need to do a “better job” of listening to many different believers.  In fact, I am sure they would want to invite those people into the conversation. Indeed that was part of Stackhouse’s intention.  Nevertheless, this doesn’t change the fundamental point.  Belcher’s book is by, for, and about a certain strain of White, largely middle-class, usually suburban (in thinking if not in residence), approach to church.     Stackhouse is, I think, much more in touch with this but also in some ways misses the boat. His desire to diversify the academy is itself a project of great importance to the same demographic, though one slightly more liberal and open minded than the traditionalist of Belcher’s description.  Frankly as I consider the churches I’ve attended in my life, the churches my father and brother now pastor, the tens of thousands of churches like them and the many millions of believers in them, I am convinced that neither Stackhouse’s desire for diversification in sex and ethnicity, nor Belcher’s third way have anything to say to them.  Even more importantly, I am pretty sure that both groups (though not these two men in particular; I don’t know them well enough or at all to say specifically) are not necessarily open to learning from them.

I find myself in an uniquely odd category.  People with backgrounds like mine generally don’t interact either in person or through the blogosphere with people like Stackhouse or Belcher.  It is funny to hear talk about listening to different voices, especially the voice of the minority and the poor, and yet be aware that many of them don’t realize that those voices may be entirely uninterested in being a part of the conversation, and even more that the conversation itself seems pointless and irrelevant to them.  It doesn’t seem pointless and irrelevant because they have been excluded from the conversation.  Its just that most of what is being talked about doesn’t matter one whit.  Likewise it is interesting to hear discussion about “the church” while ignoring the fact that much of the global church world could care less about emergent or emerging or emergence or whatever other monikers well connected White dudes (and some Asians) who have enough money to fly around to conferences discussing what to call themselves care about.

This latter is not an unimportant point.  How amazing it is to me how many thousands of dollars are spent by these folks flying around the country and the world talking to themselves about what is important.  The irony is amazing really.

Well this post has been mostly random thoughts not terribly well put together.  Perhaps I”ll dress it up later or not

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead: TNIV is gone gone gone!

Is there any doubt from the title of this post that I don’t exactly have great feelings of sadness for the demise of the TNIV?  It is perhaps not so appropriate to call the TNIV “the witch” since it is a “faithful and scholarly translation” but there you have it.  There are others for whom the TNIV has been an important resource for their own lives and ministry and they are sad to see it go.  Daniel writes:

As someone who communicates from the Bible on a weekly basis, I have found the TNIV to be a faithful, accurate and scholarly update to the best-selling NIV translation many of us grew up with.

Well  God bless him.  Eugene Cho also is lamenting its demise. I personally have used the TNIV on occasion (usually because there was no other option available) but have never purchased one and wouldn’t unless I had no other option.  I was opposed to its publication for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the gender inclusive language.  From Christianity Today:

“Whatever its strengths were, the TNIV divided the evangelical Christian community,” said Zondervan president Moe Girkins. “So as we launch this new NIV, we will discontinue putting out new products with the TNIV.”

Girkins expects the TNIV and the existing edition of the NIV to phase out over two years or so as tniv-study-bible_0products are replaced. “It will be several years before you won’t be able to buy the TNIV off a bookshelf,” she said.

“We are correcting the mistakes in the past,” Girkins said. “Being as transparent as possible is part of that. This decision was made by the board in the last 10 days.” She said the transparency is part of an effort to overhaul the NIV “in a way that unifies Christian evangelicalism.”

“The first mistake was the NIVi,” Danby said. “The second was freezing the NIV. The third was the process of handling the TNIV.”

I have no quarrels with or suspicions about the motives of the scholars who did the work of translation for the TNIV.  I am certain (as certain as anyone can be about such things) that their motives were honorable and pure before God.  This is true even as it relates to the issue of gender inclusive language.

Doug Moo, chairman of the the Committee on Bible Translation (which is the body responsible for the translation) said the committee has not yet decided how much the 2011 edition will include the gender-inclusive language that riled critics of the TNIV.

“We felt certainly at the time it was the right thing to do, that the language was moving in that direction,” Moo said. “All that is back on the table as we reevaluate things this year. This has been a time over the last 15 to 20 years in which the issue of the way to handle gender in English has been very much in flux, in process, in development. And things are changing quickly and so we are going to look at all of that again as we produce the 2011 NIV.”

The “flux” to which Moo refers concerning the English language is actually overstated.  Neutered language is the norm in academic English usage and has moved  into common usage beyond the academy due mostly to rather aggressive efforts to mold popular use.  Unlike the evolution of the English language generally, the neutering of the language happened intentionally as a way to counter what were considered to be the oppressive patriarchal assumptions embedded in the language.

Why this gender thing matters, but not really

In so many ways, it honestly doesn’t. Though I am no Greek scholar, I am aware that in many places the language used is, in some ways, generic, that is, it does not specify gender, or more specifically, sex.  To neuter the original language in this way in order to conform to contemporary English usage norms makes a lot of good sense and doesn’t fundamentally challenge any doctrines of the church.

In other ways though, the neutering of language is quite significant as it says something powerful about how the church interacts with culture.   It is in fact only the newest manifestation of the church’s efforts to respond to and speak relevantly to a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christan and into which the church’s voice as a culture shaping agent is less and less important.  The multiplication of English language translations in the last century is testimony of the increasing marginalization of the church in society and every attempt at relevance reinforces greater and greater alienation.  But more on that in a later post.  In the mean time:

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.

Post-mission Mission

I write this post from a nice comfortable guest bedroom in the home of a friend in Gentilly, a suburb of Paris, France. Just a few days ago I was in Ghana on mission, doing all the things that short term missionaries do, and some that they don’t (like discussing with our ministry partners what kind of woman I need so he can find me a wife). Now I am relaxing in Paris for the next several days – almost 10 full days before I return to my normal life and responsibilities. Hence the blogging hiatus since late May. Thanks Wayne for checking in on a brother.

As I rode the train from Amsterdam to Paris yesterday, I began my process of debriefing my summer experiences in mission. Anyone who has gone on missions knows, or should know, that how you re-enter your home country is as important a part of the trip as anything else you do. I debated, given my tiredness, if I was perhaps foolish to set aside quite so much time for recovery and “vacation.” There are lots of other things I could and maybe even should be doing. And I miss the students who were part of the team. But I also know that rest is important, and I have no choice now, since my plane tickets are already purchased. So I am stuck here until time to leave, and I have no agenda. I will see what I want to see and there may be many things I do not see. My priority is rest and refreshment in the Lord’s presence here in the capital city of the eldest daughter of the church.

In Amsterdam and subsequently on the train to Paris, I had many uncollected and random thoughts as I tried to piece together my experiences and my surroundings. Some observations…

The first observation, a recollection really, is just how big Dutch people are. I mean, they are just really tall and big people. I am six feet tall and easily at many points was the shortest person in the crowd. There were many women who were taller than me. It makes me wonder what the heck they’re feeding them.

The second is that Europe is far more diverse than America. The world was present on the train and in the Metro station – people of varied nationalities and cultures mixing and intermixing. There are lots of mixed race children around.

The third and easily the only really disturbing one is that for all the wealth and luxury of Europe (and it is indeed wealthy and luxurious – have you looked at the dollar/Euro exchange rate lately?) it is a spiritual and communally desolate place compared to Ghana. The reality of spiritual oppression in some communities in Ghana were idol worship is practiced is nothing compared to the oppression of a godless and unarticulated spiritual depravity that stalks the land here. I do not mean to suggest that God is absent; He is never absent. And amazingly I met someone on the train who quite likely is Christian, as he explicitly asked me about attending the Hillsong – Paris church after I told him I had come from Ghana on missions. He also mentioned that some of his American friends were coming to do church planting in Paris. No, the gospel is alive and well, and the kingdom is steadily advancing in quiet and not so quiet ways. But in just this short stay, the words of I Timothy seem even more prescient to me, “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.” More thoughts on this later, but can it be that the very wealth of nations is a spiritual placebo, plastering over our spiritual destitution with the appearance of security?

You don’t speak for me!

Rarely am I annoyed by something to the point of deciding to write a blog post extemporaneously, but this case will mark a departure from my previous reserve.

By now everyone who is paying even scant attention to the political campaign is aware of Rev. Wright (Sen. Obama’s pastor of twenty years). Most recently he has engaged in a number of speaking engagements in which he has spoken eloquently and passionately about his views, and expanded admirably on sound bites that had admittedly demeaned and narrowed his ministry and message. Rev. Wright is a remarkable man, and a formidable preacher; certainly now one of the best known Black preachers in America, though he had a good deal of prominence before all of this started.

Rev. Wright preaches from a distinct tradition within the larger Black gospel tradition; one that emphasizes the prophetic engagement of the church with the world. His sermons and analyses serve the function of calling needed attention to the foibles, failures, and outright dysfunctionality of the American government. The Black liberation tradition from which Wright springs is not mainstream American evangelicalism, and like much of what happens within the Black community, it is obscure in its origins and impact to the larger American psyche. Like the prophets, liberation theologies have a particular edge that lends itself to causing great offense in the hope that the people to whom the message is addressed will change their behaviors and repent. The recent spotlighting of Rev. Wright and indeed the very fact of Obama’s candidacy has allowed an opportunity for many American’s to “listen in” on a conversation that occurs within the Black community. Wright’s style, cadence, free use of Biblical passages, even his mannerisms are exceedingly common within the Black church.

I would be dishonest if I did not say that some of the things Wright has been quoted as saying are not entirely unfamiliar to me or foreign to my ears, having grown up as I did strictly within the Black church tradition. Let me also say that the kind of preaching Wright does and the ministry he advocates does bear a certain appeal. His sermons touch a deep chord with many in the Black community. Even his flirtations with universalism and his seeming embrace of Louis Farrakhan are not particularly exceptional within the context of the Black church and community. A large part of this is the simple reality that our history in America has not afforded us much luxury of distancing ourselves too far from those with whom we may vehemently disagree. The outside pressures of racism, discrimination, and poverty have created within the Black community a type of tolerance for diversity of ideas and approaches that would surprise many. It is the reason why Black churches rarely split over theological issues, but much more frequently over personality and leadership issues. It is also why many Black people will turn a willful blind eye towards practicing homosexuals in the church, or to preachers who proclaim a prosperity gospel. There is a decidedly political aspect to Black church life that means you simply don’t disrespect another recognized leader in the Black community publicly even if you think him to be a charlatan and a fraud. In this, Obama is correct; he can no more dissociate himself from Wright than he can from the Black community.

Having said all of that, I part ways significantly with Wright’s characterization of the negative press attention he’s received as being an attack on the Black church. Rev. Wright. whatever his strengths in preaching or service or even his theological persuasion, does not speak for me. I am as Black as they come, and I love the Black church. Indeed I myself am a minister of the gospel and I understand the responsibility that comes with proclamation. I would not want someone to dissect all of my sermons. Some of the early ones were probably borderline heresy. Nevertheless, Wright does not speak for me, nor does he speak for the hundreds of Black denominations, thousands of churches and millions of church-goers. Prophetic preaching is a hallmark of the Black church, but so is redemptive declarations of forgiveness. The pulpit is not the place to peddle conspiracy theories and wild eyes imaginings about the U.S. government. Furthermore it is not his place to declare or anoint himself as spokesman of the Black church in America.

As we and others have wrestled with what it means to form an authentic Asian American theology one of the places to which we’ve looked has been the developed of an authentic Black voice in liturgy, theology and preaching. As a participant in that ongoing conversation, I believe it is important to remember that any authentic Biblical theology must be first rooted in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and the sacred text of scripture and then at how that revelation speaks into and reinterprets our particular context. It is likewise important to recall that the kingdom of God is a kingdom not of this world, and that the vagaries of politics and government are not to be overly feared, sanctified, or vilified. They are what they are, and they will perish when he who will come shall come.