The Compelling Alternative

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It was a familiar conversation, one I’ve been a part of many times in recent years. How did white evangelical churches become so captive to one political party, welcome patriarchal treatment of women and cover up abuse, become militaristic, nationalistic, anti-science and anti-environment, and racially divided from those who believed as they did but had different colored skin.

There have been a proliferation of critiques, both from other Christians as well as the secular press. What I found myself wondering as I listened to this discussion is why the alternative vision so many of my friends and I pursue has had so little sway among so many that claim the identifier “evangelical.” This is worth serious study, but I have a few very preliminary thoughts–less “answers” than hypotheses.

One is that we have focused more on critique than an alternative compelling vision of pursuing the kingdom. We focus more on:

  • What’s wrong with “making America great again” than on magnifying the greatness of God and God’s global mission of forming a great people of every language, tribe, ethnicity, and nation.
  • Criticizing patriarchy rather than casting vision for what marriages of mutual service shaped by Christ are like and what churches might be like where women and men use all of the gifts of God to serve the people of God in shared leadership.
  • We join the chorus of #MeToo discussing abuse in the church and rightly so. However, I rarely hear about redeemed, chaste, and flourishing sexuality–mostly what I hear is silence.
  • We speak against the racism of “white” evangelicalism but still have a long ways to go in partnership with believers of color, learning even to submit to their leadership and repenting of white Messiahship.
  • We denounce political captivity to one party, but offer little more than political captivity to another. Rarely do we recognize that the church is its own polis, a people of the Third Way speaking prophetically without being entangled with any party, turning neither to the left nor the right.
  • We deride the anti-science attitudes of others but fail to convey the doxological wonder of exploring the incredible world God has made, sometimes falling into a greater confidence in science than in God.

As I keep pondering this, I wonder if it is more than a matter of who has the better way? Might it be that we are both wrong? I wonder if we are looking at a mirror image of each other, and that we all have abandoned the core values that made evangelicalism such a vibrant movement within Christianity over the last couple centuries, not only in the U.S., but globally. David Bebbington has articulated this as a quadrilateral of core values:

  1. Bible-centered. We affirm the inspiration, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible. My sense is that there is very little Bible in much of evangelicalism–often only in misapplied proof texts rather than attentive listening to and meditating upon and even memorizing scripture. In particular, one challenge for us is to read scripture together with people of color and believers from other parts of the world who may not have the same blinders we have.
  2. Cross-centered. The cross challenges all our pretensions to power and influence–from gender relations to politics. The cross gives us all pause to recognize that we are sinners, and that this recognition is good news, because in the cross, the curse of sin is reversed, real pardon is possible. We believe “the ground is level at the foot of the cross,” that all of us meet without distinctions of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or anything else that separates people. There is no “othering” and certainly no fear-mongering that infers the inferiority of others. We are all both base sinners and the redeemed of God.
  3. Conversion-centered. The cross shows us we need something more than personal and social betterment. We are dying people who need new life, and our hope is in Christ’s death and resurrection. Period. That both moves us to be converted and seek that of others. What I notice is how little we speak of these things. Have we so lost confidence in the transforming power of the gospel that we have turned to meagre earthly things like politics, or efforts to control other people?
  4. Activism. Evangelicals were distinguished by gospel energized activism that effected abolition of slavery, the building of hospitals, the earliest social agencies, and the founding of educational institutions, among other social goods. I wonder if much of our activism, whether of the right or left is co-opted by political connections or shaped by what is in favor in our political tribe rather than energized by the Jubilee proclamation of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.

I wonder if white evangelicals of the left and right are both apostate. Have we both renounced our birthright in Christ, which is what is truly compelling? Are we both worshiping idols, just different ones? I wonder if we might begin with common confession that we have turned from our first love, a common repentance. Might that be the beginning of the revival we urgently need, both within the people of God and spreading to a deeply divided and struggling nation? Right now, we are only amplifying the divisions that exist among us when, as reconciliation people, we ought to be healing them. Might the beginning be to admit our unfitness for the work, and how desperately we need God to heal us before we can begin to bring healing?

Review: Every Leaf, Line, and Letter

Every Leaf, Line, and Letter, Edited by Timothy Larsen, Introduction by Thomas S. Kidd. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A collection of articles in honor of historian of evangelicalism, David Bebbington, exploring expressions of the “biblicism,” in Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism, known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.”

Historian David Bebbington is most widely known for his description of the defining characteristics of evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, which has become known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.” This collection of articles focuses on biblicism, an effort to honor Bebbington on his 70th birthday and retirement from his Chair. The articles cover a span of time from the 1730’s to the present and are organized by century. One of the main themes of the books is the variety of uses of the Bible and forms of expression of evangelicalism’s commitment to the Bible. In my review I will summarize the articles by century, noting salient points.

Eighteenth Century

Kristina Benham opens this collection considering American preaching during the Revolutionary War and the widespread invocation of Exodus and Independence as ascent to an American Zion. She notes how the exodus theme will later be used by slaves from within the American system. Bruce Hindmarsh takes some exception with Bebbington’s observation of Enlightenment influence in 18th century evangelicalism by noting the extensive examples of figural reading of the biblical text. Then Jonathan Yeager rounds out this section by contrasting the views of Jonathan Edwards and John Erskine on faith and free will. Yeager exposes Edward’s distinctiveness from the reformers on his views of the place of the will in the exercise of faith, contrasting him with the more traditionally reformed Erskine.

Nineteenth Century

I found K. Elise Leal’s “Young People Are Actually Becoming Accurate Bible Theologians” one of the most interesting essays in the volume. She looks at children’s Bible education, including a heavy emphasis on memory work and the efforts of the Sunday school movement to form children into “Bible Theologians.” I saw echoes of these efforts in my own childhood Sunday school experience. Mark Noll explores the challenge that the debate to slavery posed to the belief in sola scriptura–the reality that pro-slavery and abolitionist preaching both invoked the same Bible. I’m convinced that evangelicalism in the U.S. bears the mark of this crisis down to the present day. I had not previously been acquainted with Josephine Butler, a crusader for women’s rights whose life was animated by her reading of scripture, particularly in its focus on the gospels and an almost mystical love for Jesus. Mary Riso offers a fascinating portrait of her as an example of the expression of biblicism in evangelical piety.

Twentieth Century

This section opens with David Bebbington’s own contribution to this volume: a study of the Bible crisis in British evangelicalism in the 1920’s, the fundamentalist reaction to critical studies that brought significant divides in the U.S. was more muted, in part because of the strong Anglican evangelical presence who refused to denounce or separate. I was fascinated to learn of the significant role the Bible league played in the student movement that became Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the UK, later spreading to Canada and the U.S. Timothy Larson follows up with a study of Liberal Evangelicals in the UK through a study of the ministry of Vernon Faithful Storr, a leader in the Anglican Evangelical Group Movement, the locus of liberal evangelicalism. It was telling that they were defined as much for their stance against Anglo-Catholicism and for the “central” churchman rather than doctrinal views, although Storrs moved to a position of believing neither in the plenary inspiration or final authority of the Bible. Sadly his efforts to be “on the right side of history” led to the eclipse of his movement by the evangelicals led by John Stott, much to his chagrin.

The next essay shifts the focus to the United States and the anti-lynching efforts of Francis Grimke and the biblical arguments he used, the lack of attention he received, and his developing arguments for the legitimacy of defensive resistance in the face of white tyranny and oppression. The section concludes with the rise of the charismatic movement, particularly in New Zealand and Britain, the rift between Michael Harper and John Stott over whether Spirit baptism was a second and distinct work to justification and how the charismatic renewal led to more democratic uses of scripture in personal and public devotion and ministry.

Twenty-first Century

This last part begins with what I thought a chilling study of the Patriot’s Bible, the interweaving of biblical text and American history laying groundwork for a kind of Christian nationalistic fervor and militarism in defense of country. It is interesting to trace how many problems in American Christianity trace to what is in the margins of our Bibles along with the Biblical text from C. I. Scofield to the present. I’ve often warned against treating the notes as inspired and that we may do better to read Bibles without such notes. Finally Brian Stanley, a global church historian considers the variety of forms biblicism takes in global evangelicalism, particularly in context where oral tradition or hymn-singing are important.

While this is a selective treatment of biblicism in evangelical history as any such treatment must be, this festschrift offers rich food for thought. The two articles on early twentieth century evangelicalism remind me of the challenge of avoiding either polemical dogmatism or liberal latitudinarianism. It was fascinating to think about the formation of children, which seems less important in many circles, than even in my youth. More striking is how often evangelicals have appropriated scripture for political ends, from revolution to slavery to making America great. It makes sense to me of the advocacy of some Christians that we need a new revolution. It seems to me instead that we need a better reading of scripture, perhaps one shaped by the other aspects of Bebbington’s Quadrilateral–the centrality of Christ and his cross, the necessity of conversion (rarely talked about these days) and activism like that of Josephine Butler, fueled by the biblical text and the love of Christ.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Still Evangelical?

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I follow different publishers on Twitter as one way of learning about their latest books. On Saturday, I saw and responded to this tweet from InterVarsity Press:

Bob Trube on Twitter Yes I am still evangelical Evangelicals who have become ensnared with the politics of the Left or the Right have left in sacrificing the centrality of Christ …

I sent this reply:

“Yes, I am still evangelical. Evangelicals who have become ensnared with the politics of the Left or the Right have left [evangelicalism] in sacrificing the centrality of Christ [for political access and influence].” (Bracketed words add clarity for what was an abbreviated, tweet response.)

The tweet is no doubt part of a campaign to promote a new book, Still Evangelical?, that wrestles with the question, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, whether they still want to identify with the evangelical tribe. The book is on my “to read” pile, so look for a review in the near future.

My response reflected a “moment of clarity” earlier in the week. I was participating in a retreat of faith leaders involved in collegiate ministry at the university where I have worked in collegiate ministry over twenty years. The majority of those in the room were mainline Protestant, Catholic, or representatives of other religions. In the course of the day, exercises moved from fun, but relatively non-threatening discussion to the point of sharing about our religious identity. I was paired with a woman from what I would characterize as a “progressive Protestant denomination” and her views reflected that. Do I play coy, go vague, or tell the truth?

I went for truth with the qualification that evangelicalism for me had nothing to do with political captivity to the Left or the Right (and I do think both have occurred in recent American religious and political history). I went on to say that for me, this identifier goes back to the root of the word “evangel” as good news, and that David Bebbington’s “Quadrilateral” is still a useful rubric for what I consider near and dear, and in what I believe this good news consists:

  • Biblicism doesn’t mean for me a wooden literalism but that God hasn’t left us in the dark, but in a variety of ways from poetry to prophecy to history, God has spoken a trustworthy word to bring us the light of God’s grace and how we might live in consequence of that grace, and that the Bible is crucial in defining the character of the new community of God’s people and how they live out the life of faith together.
  • Crucicentrism,  that God has broken into our estrangement from him in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, what we desperately needed. As I said in my tweet, Christ is central to my faith, the focal point of all of scripture and my hope in life and death.
  • Conversionism. The good news is that because of what Christ accomplished, we are no longer left to efforts to try harder to be better, struggling against the tyranny of self. We are “new creations” in Christ, people in whom life has begun anew, cleaning the slate of all our wrongs, and providing a new capacity, the indwelling Spirit of God, enabling us to live into that new creation life.
  • Activism. The grace of God moves us to a life of pursuing the beauty and goodness that reflects that grace, while making known in our words as well as our deeds the extravagant love of God revealed in Christ and the offer of new life in him for all who believe.

This movement, with all its flaws led the way to the abolition of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic, provided the basis of social work in our cities, has fought human trafficking on a global basis, as well as provided the impetus for a missions movement, flawed at times, but also resulting in indigenously led Christian movements throughout the world, including one in China that may soon be the largest in the world.

In sharing this, I came to a moment of clarity that “evangel” and “evangelical” are good words, and there is really nothing quite like them as identifiers for a life shaped by this good news. I have also been reading To Light a Fire on Earth by Bishop Robert A. Barron, one of the leaders of the “New Evangelization” in the Catholic Church and have been impressed by how unashamedly he uses the terms “evangelism,” “evangelical,” and “evangel” throughout the work.

No doubt these carry some distinctive valences for Barron, and yet what strikes me is not only his unashamed use of these good words that so many evangelicals are fleeing from, but also that in the effort he is leading within Catholicism, one can detect some of the same distinctives one sees in Bebbington’s Quadrilateral, distinctives I will elaborate in my forthcoming review.

All this leads me to the conclusion that it is time to reclaim this identity, and this good word rather than to slink away from it, either in identification or affiliation. It’s time for us to say to those who have co-opted this identity for a politically captive idolatry that they have lost their way, they have strayed from their first love, and we would love for them to repent, but that they should not use “evangelical” for what is a type of “national” or “political”  or racially homogeneous religion.

My fear, and it is a temptation I recognize in myself, is that in walking away from the identifier “evangelical,” whether we leave the “tribe” or not, is that we will also walk away from the good distinctives that are part of Bebbington’s Quadrilateral. (I am aware that some, like Timothy Gloege have advocated that we ought to abandon these, and I think John Fea has responded well to this contention.) This temptation to mute our identification and what makes it distinctive seems to leave us with a vague religion defined by what we are not, perhaps some form of personal piety, and maybe an impetus toward do-good-ism.

My sense is that instead we need to press more fully into that identity in ways that address our present crisis. I could see us pressing into listening hard to the whole counsel of God in the Bible rather than our selective readings. I could see us pressing into the way the work of Christ is for all without distinctions of gender, class, race, or national origins and the implications for a society deeply riven by these divisions. I could see us pressing into the transforming power of conversion and what that means for so many in our society without hope. I could see us pressing into an activism that explores how each and all of us might live out callings that pursue beauty, goodness and truth in a world where there is far too much ugliness, evil, and lie.

All this lies behind my response to InterVarsity Press’s tweet. Yes, I’m still evangelical. And unashamedly so.

[I would also commend a great article by a colleague that explores this same landscape, Evangelicalism: It’s a Brand but its Also a Space.]