The Compelling Alternative

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

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: Mother of Modern Evangelicalism

Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears, Arlin C. Migliazzo, Foreword by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: The first comprehensive biography on Henrietta Mears that focuses on her early life, her Christian Education ministry at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, and her national impact on a nascent evangelical network of leaders, on Christian publishing and retreat ministry.

She had been dead for almost a decade when I received a copy of What the Bible is All About. I was a young Christian, still in high school, trying to read the Bible. The book started me on a lifelong habit of reading scripture through its clear explanations of the layout of the Bible, the world of the Bible, and the central figure of scripture, the Lord Jesus. In a small way at least, I was one more person in whose life Henrietta Mears had an impact. I had no notion of the breadth of impact the grandmotherly woman on the back cover had during her life on American evangelicalism.

The edition of What the Bible is All About that helped me begin reading the Bible.

Mears established the largest Sunday School in the country and headed up the National Sunday School Association, raising the standards of Christian education throughout the country. She hosted a ministry to some of the leading men and women in Hollywood during the 1950’s. She was a catalyst in the ministries of Bill Bright, Dawson Trotman, and Billy Graham as well as many others. The need for Christ-centered and biblically sound Sunday School materials led to establish Gospel Light Publishing, which she headed up for many years. She purchased a Christian conference center, Forest Home. Her college class turned out a generation of leaders who became pastors, missionaries, and leaders in a number of professions across the country, creating a network that served for the expansion of a theologically conservative but culturally engaging evangelicalism.

All this in spite of a very obvious fact. Mears was a woman in an era where gender roles were very well defined and men preached and led. She never challenged this gender framework. She simply led with excellence and expected that of those around her. She sought out men especially for her college ministry who would be leaders, mentored them, sometimes in demanding terms. She poured herself into others with a kind of tough and yet utterly supportive love that led to their blossoming.

Working at the intersection of the entertainment industry and a center of education, she both hued to theological orthodoxy and adopted an open and generous stance to the intellectual and entertainment world of her day, establishing a model for a culturally winsome evangelicalism that contrasted with the fortress mentality of some fundamentalists (though not all, as Migliazzo notes).

While the work of Mears between 1928 and her death in 1963 was fairly well known, Arlin Migliazzo draws on various archival materials and interviews to show the depth and breadth of that work. He also introduces us to the young Henrietta Mears, growing up in the upper Midwest. She grew up in a devout Baptist family. Her father traveled extensively for his business and so her mother Margaret played a significant role in her upbringing, imparting her faith, as well as a keen work ethic, and high standards of responsibility.

He also traces her college training in education and early teaching experience, where almost immediately, she was made principal of a small rural Minnesota high school. Returning to Minneapolis, she took up leadership of the Sunday School under leading fundamentalist pastor William Bell Riley. She built a girls ministry called Fidelis that reached over 500 in number. She turned her back on marriage. After almost ten years came the call to Hollywood Presbyterian Church.

She had a husky voice, weak eyes, and was described as “built like a fireplug.” She could be demanding. When she felt betrayed, she could be unforgiving. She liked the finer things, including fur collars. Migliazzo notes her weak record on issues of race. Yet when she began to speak in a class or convention, she commanded attention for the clarity of her teaching and passion for Christ. How else to account for her influence on the likes of Graham, Bright, and others?

Migliazzo’s outstanding biography not only helps us to take the measure of her life in full but also sets her in the larger framework of the emergence of evangelicalism from its fundamentalist roots. She played a vital role in that emergence, and “showed” the capabilities of women given over to Christ in a time when “telling” wasn’t possible.

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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.

Review: The Disruption of Evangelicalism

the disruption of evangelicalism

The Disruption of Evangelicalism (History of Evangelicalism Series, Volume 4) Geoffrey R. Treloar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Countering the existing narrative of evangelicalism at its zenith before World War I followed by a great reversal, this work argues a more positive assessment of evangelical response to the disruptions of war.

The fourth volume in the series of the History of Evangelicalism Series covers the years of 1900 to 1940. The standard narrative is of evangelicalism reaching a pinnacle of influence at the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910, followed by the challenges of the Great War (World War I), and sent reeling into retreat by the forces of modernism and the post war boom and depression, resulting in a bunker-mentality fundamentalism. Geoffrey R. Treloar argues for a more positive assessment of evangelicalism throughout this period while noting the challenges, external and internal that it faced during this time.

Treloar understands Bebbington’s four marks of evangelicalism in terms of intersecting axes. One axis is the biblicist-crucicentrist axis focused upon doctrine and more inward looking and the other axis the conversionist-activist experiential axis. Broadly speaking, the first period between 1900 and 1914 focused around the more outward looking conversionist-activist axis. Two figures exemplified this period–the revivalist Reuben A.  Torrey and the missionary statesmen and ecumenist John R. Mott, who presided over the 1910 Edinburgh Missions Conference with its watchword, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Scholars like A. S. Peake were engaging modern biblical criticism, although the first signs of a conservative approach concerned with doctrinal integrity was evident in the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals to pastors.

The second period was the Great War of 1914-1918. Evangelicals rallied to support the war effort of the Allied Powers and an ethic of laying down one’s life shaped the zeal of many who fought. And many did, while others returned, some stronger in faith, but others shattered by the horrors of trench warfare. Evangelicals struggled with the tension between supposed “Christian nations” who did not act very Christianly at Versailles. The revival expected during and after the war did not occur. While church attendance did not fall off, neither was there the vibrancy of the pre-war period.

This leads to the third discernible period in Treloar’s survey. He explores the tensions within the diverse evangelical movement, responding to modernism. On the one hand is a more liberal evangelicalism that attempts to hang on to its core of faith while engaging modernist ideas and social involvement. On the other, there is the rise of a fundamentalism concerned with doctrinal integrity and maintaining the priority of evangelism. Two figures Treloar focuses on here is Aimee Semple McPherson, representing the growing pentecostal movement and the uses of the new technology of radio, and Thomas Chatterton (T. C.) Hammond, whose work, first with the Church of Ireland as an evangelist and pastor, where he honed skills in articulating a winsome and theologically acute Christian faith, and later with the newly formed Inter-Varsity Fellowship and the Anglican Church in Australia. He was most know for a manual of doctrine, In Understanding Be Men, used to equip non-theological students with a knowledge of evangelical doctrine. Meanwhile J. Edwin Orr continued to study and mobilize believers to pursue revival in the church, and Australian Lionel Fletcher widely evangelized, seeing as many as 250,000 conversions in his extensive travels. By the 1930’s, a vibrant missions movement had also revived.

Treloar’s point is that while the war represented a definite disruption in the trajectory of evangelicalism, and an unraveling of the various strands of the movement, after a nadir period in the 1920’s, this very diversity resulted in a renewal of both axes–the doctrinal biblicist-crucicentrist, and the conversionist-activist.

I do think Treloar offers a more nuanced rendering of this history. Yet I believe he ignores the critique Mark Noll makes in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll notes that both the activist, and conservative theological commitments led to a disengagement with modernist scholarship, and a retreat from serious influence in the academic world. Apart from the theological rigor of the IVF in Great Britain and related institutions like Tyndale House, I would contend that this period represented a serious retreat and reversal in the market place of ideas, if not in other aspects, a retreat reversed only with the rise of the post-World War II evangelicalism of Carl Henry and his like.

As a side note, I was fascinated by Treloar’s focus on T. C. Hammond. His In Understanding Be Men was still in print in the mid-1970’s and was the theological handbook I studied in my early years on InterVarsity/USA staff. I was saddened to learn that Hammond was associated with a “White Australia Policy” as were many American churchmen in the 1920’s with “100 Percent Americanism.” Ideas of white supremacy and racism, sadly have a long history in evangelicalism.

Treloar does a great service in chronicling this period of evangelical history, often relegated to a kind of evangelical “dark ages” far less illustrious that the eras that preceded and followed. He helps us see that far more was going on in both theological and missiological formation in the evangelical movement than is often credited.

 

Review: The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No BordersMelani McAlister. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the international dimension of American evangelicalism, focusing particularly on Africa and the Middle East, the impact this American movement has had globally, and in turn ways global evangelicalism is engaging American evangelicalism.

American evangelicalism has been the subject of much historical, sociological and political analysis. Nearly all of this has been focused within the borders of the United States. Melani McAlister studies this movement through a different lens–the mission efforts of the past fifty years that have led to an international engagement, particularly as growing indigenous movements have challenged American evangelical beliefs and practices. The work includes extensive archival research, on the ground observation, and carefully chosen photographs that enhance the text. The focus of the author is on efforts in the Middle East and Africa, consistent with the author’s research area as an associate professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University.

The scope of this study is the last fifty years, going back to the 1960’s. After an introduction, the first section of the book is concerned with “networks,” the linkages of various key organizations within evangelicalism (e.g. the National Association of Evangelicals, InterVarsity, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others) both with one another, at conferences and in mission efforts. The narrative begins with the efforts of evangelicalism to reconcile its concern for peoples of color with the racial struggle coming to the surface in the 1960’s, then moves on to the Congo Crisis and encounters with Marxist movements and the intersection of religious and political concerns–would Congo become another Vietnam. At the same time, Israel captured the American imagination in its victory in the 1967 war, leading to travel to biblical sites and increasing linkages between religious hopes and American foreign policy. This section concludes with the largest networking encounter of the period, Lausanne ’74 and the growing tension between missional advance and social justice concerns from delegates in the developing world who were asserting their own voices increasingly.

Part Two is organized around body politics. It begins with Richard Wurmbrand displaying the wounds from his tortures before the U.S. Congress. Much of this section concerns persecution of evangelicals abroad and the intersection with concerns for religious liberty at home. McAlister traces the engagement with South African apartheid and how U.S. evangelicals dealt with the treatment of blacks and the witness of black Christian leaders. She explores the rising awareness of the Muslim World and the 10/40 Window heuristic for the unreached and resistant areas of the Muslim World. The section concludes with African American evangelicals efforts to address the crisis in South Sudan, and the redemption of people taken into slavery, an engagement of the heart that fails to get to the heart of the political turmoil in this troubled part of the world.

This leads naturally into Part Three, titled “Emotions.” McAlister explores what she calls “enchanted internationalism” that motivates much of evangelical mission. She chronicles the “short term missions” movement and the motivation of so many who “have a heart” for the lost, but often do not truly engage the cultural realities of the places they go, often supplanting national workers who may be as, or more capable. McAlister tells the complicated story of American engagement around HIV/AIDS, and homosexuality in Africa, where African evangelicals take a much harsher line than Americans like Rick Warren, and resent what they see as American cultural imperialism asserting itself into African churches. Again, much of the focus is South Sudan, as she joins Dick Robinson from Elmbrook Church as he visits believers scattered through the country and joins a Global Urban Trek of InterVarsity students in Egypt working with South Sudanese refugees as they confront both the enchantment of close identification one student had with Muslim Egyptians, and the struggle of a black participant who feels the racism of Egyptians while identifying more closely with the South Sudanese. All confront the expectations on Americans, the complexities of political and social realities, and the challenge of trying to live authentic Christian lives in difficult circumstances.

As someone who lives inside the world McAlister is studying and works in one of the organizations she investigates, I wondered how she would treat us. She is honest at one point in identifying herself as secular (on an Elmbrook Church mission project, one of the few organizations that permitted her to participate in such projects), and I thought fairly represented the facts. This was neither tribute nor hatchet job. It represents both noble efforts and questionable outlooks. She explores how global realities intersect with the American expressions of evangelicalism–how can we care for people of color around the world while tolerating racism at home? How do we hold mission in the Muslim world together with an increasing animus toward Muslims at home? How concerned are we for the religious liberties of the other as we advocate for our own? Furthermore, will we truly regard those who are fellow evangelicals around the world as equals and allow them to speak into our religious and political life as Americans? What happens when grateful recipients become equal partners? What happens when American evangelicals are a minority in a growing global movement?

I was deeply impressed with the incarnational approach of McAlister, who makes the effort to get on the inside that enables readers to see what American evangelicalism in its global efforts might look like to an outsider. I often read accounts of evangelicalism that are unrecognizable. The challenging aspect of this book is how recognizable it is, a mirror held up to us that shows all our features—and flaws.

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

The Billy Graham Century

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Publishers Weekly story called to my attention that this is Billy Graham’s centennial year. If his health holds, he will turn 100 on November 7, 2018. The article noted that there are new or updated books that will be released this year by scholars William Martin and Grant Wacker and more popular books by his grandson William and former Graham associate Lon Allison. Edit Blumhofer is working on a book on Graham’s use of gospel music at his crusades, and Ann Blue Wills will publish a work on the life of Ruth Bell Graham titled An Odd Cross to Bear. Martin’s book apparently will also explore the impact of Graham’s son Franklin on his legacy.

At a time when many are questioning whether evangelicalism has a future, or whether to identify as an evangelical, it is oddly fitting and paradoxical that this attention is being given to the figure who as much as anyone defined American evangelicalism. His educational journey traced his journey from fundamentalism to the beginnings of evangelicalism, leaving Bob Jones University after a year because of its legalism to attend Florida Bible Institute and then finishing his education at Wheaton College. He started out as an evangelist with high school ministry Youth for Christ and launched his first “crusade” in Los Angeles, gaining national attention due to William Randolph Hearst’s decision to “puff Graham.”

His crusades reached across denominational lines, drawing criticism from fundamentalists. He pioneered use of media with his Hour of Decision radio broadcasts (to which I listened growing up) and with his television broadcasts of crusades. He helped found Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism. He de-segregated seating at his crusades and included black leadership in his crusades as early as 1957. Joining with British preacher John R. W. Stott, they worked together to host the 1974 International Conference on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, propelling global efforts from every nation to every nation to advance the Christian message, making evangelicalism a global movement.

For better or worse, his close relationship with American presidents also established a pattern of engagement between evangelicals and politicians. It was clear in later years that he felt betrayed by Richard Nixon’s behavior in Watergate, including his profanity. They reconciled in later years. He spent extended times in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and prayed with every president from Truman to Obama. This was remarkable in a way after the rise of the Religious Right. It will be interesting to see the judgment of history on his involvement with Presidents.

Graham’s ministry had a shaping influence on my own life. His Hour of Decision broadcasts that we listened to every Sunday night during my childhood made it clear that there was a decision to be made about Christ, and that this was the most consequential decision in one’s life. While I did not “go forward” at one of his crusades, having made my “decision” at a Vacation Bible School at age 10, I saw him speak on seven occasions. The first was at the 1970 crusade in Cleveland at the old Cleveland Stadium, with a busload of kids from our church. On five occasions I heard him speak at InterVarsity’s Urbana Missions Conventions in 1976, 1979, 1981, 1984, and 1987. (Altogether, he spoke here on nine occasions. Here is a short video clip from his 1961 message). The last time I heard him speak was at the old Cooper Stadium in Columbus in 1993. I still have a poster from that in my office. When his associate evangelist Leighton Ford spoke in Youngstown, in the 1970’s, I was a counselor and the training they offered helped me in leading others to faith.

He continued to minister to my family even in retirement. My mother passed in 2010. My father was struggling with the loss and how to make sense of what was left of his life. In 2011, Graham published Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well. My dad always had deeply respected Graham and he read the book over and over again and spoke of how much it helped him. My dad finished his own race in 2012 and Graham’s book helped him in his last couple years to finish well.

It remains to be seen the course the movement he nurtured will take in coming years. Historians and religious scholars will no doubt have differing opinions on his personal influence on that movement, and I suspect not all will be favorable. It’s the lot of the best of us to both hit our limits and prove our fallibility. Perhaps all any of us can do is to be found faithful in our callings. By this standard, Graham is finishing out his century well. Not too long ago, commenting on his Parkinson’s disease, he said,

“Someone asked me recently if I didn’t think God was unfair, allowing me to have Parkinson’s and other medical problems when I have tried to serve him faithfully. I replied that I did not see it that way at all. Suffering is part of the human condition, and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to him in trust and confidence.” (Source: 40 Courageous Quotes From Billy Graham)

Personally, while recognizing aspects of his life that might be criticized, at the end of the day, I find myself saying, “thanks be to God for Billy Graham.” I suspect for him, though, the only praise that matters is the Master’s “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Update 2/21/2018: Little did I think five days ago when I published this post that we would be saying farewell to Billy Graham so soon. This morning, Billy Graham discovered the truth of the hope he preached for over 50 years and heard his Master’s “well done” as he passed through death to life everlasting.

 

 

 

Review: Still Evangelical?

4537Still Evangelical? Mark Labberton ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Ten ethnically diverse evangelical “insiders” explore whether to still identify as “evangelical” and what that means in light of the 2016 election.

Still evangelical? This is a question I’ve wrestled with and written on. What seems clear, and perhaps even more after reading this book, is that 2016 is a watershed moment in the evangelical movement in the U.S.

The book brings together a collection of evangelical insiders, albeit not those in the news for their associations with the president. This alone is telling because one often has the sense that the only ones speaking for evangelicalism are those (mostly white and male) figures surrounding the president.

The work is edited by Mark Labberton, whose introductory essay explores how an understanding of the varying “social locations” of evangelicals helps account for the deep divides in the movement. The contributions that follow are by an ethnically diverse group of leaders who identify as evangelical (itself a startling fact when evangelical is equated in polls and the media with whiteness).

  • Lisa Sharon Harper, a black evangelical discusses how evangelicalism was both where she found faith, and found her passion for justice betrayed. Her essay raises the question of what justice will require and whether evangelicalism will step up to this.
  • Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, explores why she has remained evangelical–it reflects her convictions, it speaks powerfully to our modern age, there is a beauty in its witness, a history of advocacy for justice and equality, and it is her own family’s tradition.
  • Mark Young discusses evangelicalism as an alternative to fundamentalism and the critical challenge of recovering and refocusing on identity and mission–an ecclesial missiology across the church lines that make up the evangelical movement.
  • Robert Chao Romero represents the Latinx community and speaks both of the powerful evangelical movement within while challenging the broader movement to step beyond fear in engaging issues of immigration and the Dreamers.
  • Soong-Chan Rah challenges the American Christian exceptionalism of a white evangelicalism with no room for lament faced with a growing multi-ethnic movement both in America and globally.
  • Sandra Van Opstal, a Latinx woman engaged in mobilizing multi-ethnic worship expresses the sense of betrayal many felt on election night coupled with a commitment to reform from within, being situated in an evangelical denomination in a multi-ethnic congregation.
  • Allen Yeh contrasts the theological orthodoxy of Euro-American evangelicalism with the emphasis on orthopraxy in the developing global movement of evangelicals and that we need a theology that incorporates these voices.
  • Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today writes of his realization of being part of an evangelical “elite” that often criticized the fearfulness of the “81 percent” while being blind to their own fears. He recognizes the messiness of our scene and the need to recovery a unity not around our politics but around Christ and our love for each other in him.
  • Shane Claiborne believes evangelicalism needs to be born again along the lines of his “red letter Christian” movement.
  • Jim Daly, James Dobson’s successor at Focus on the Family speaks to the critical need for threefold listening at this time: to God, to each other, and to the world.
  • Tom Lin, president of InterVarsity, wraps up the collection with the reminder that evangelicalism is far more than its American expression. It is a global movement and the embrace of that movement as well as a re-affirmation of the distinctives often referred to as Bebbington’s Quadrilateral may be critical in our day. He is heartened by what he sees in the next generation in the movement he leads (in which I am also employed)–conversions, collaboration, the embrace of people of color (53 percent of InterVarsity), and faithfulness to doctrine.

At first glance, this might be another version of the old saw about lining up economists end to end and having them point every direction. Yet I also found several threads running through these contributions:

  1. Evangelicalism in American life is just as messy as American life. Part of the reason for this is the success of evangelicalism in saturating so many of the “social locations” in our national life. Our failure is one of not being able to transcend those locations with a stronger identification with each other through and in Christ. What could happen if we awake to that, lament our mess, and allow Christ to do a fresh work?
  2. A part of our needed awakening is to the people of color who share with those of us who are white a love for the Savior and for his scriptures, and a recovery of an evangelical passion for justice for all who are image bearers of God.
  3. Our awakening also needs to be to a movement that is global in character, one in which we are a minority, and from whom we have much to learn, even as we repent from Christian versions of American exceptionalism. How might our vision of every tribe and nation, and people worshiping God in the age to come shape how we view those peoples in the present time? A departure from evangelicalism that doesn’t reckon with our global identity risks simply falling into a different variant of American exceptionalism.
  4. There is much that remains that is good and beautiful and true, from our history, from our bedrock convictions, and from how the Spirit of God is moving amid our messy national life.

Finally, the existence of leaders like those in this book, the wider movements they represent, and the relative lack of notice they receive in the broader media reminds us that it is worth questioning the media accounts of evangelicals. I do not consider these “fake news.” I  believe they are giving us true accounts, but not full accounts of a complex and messy movement. I also believe that we cannot let these accounts define our self-understanding of what it means to be evangelical, or to determine whether we are still evangelical. For me, the contributions in this book much more closely reflect the lived reality of my faith than the media accounts. Hence, I would be one who says he is “still evangelical.”

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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?

4537

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.]

Review: Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for EvangelicalsMark Galli. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: An succinct overview of the life and theological relevance of Karl Barth, particularly for contemporary evangelicals.

By most estimates, Karl Barth is considered perhaps the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. He commentary on Romans challenged the liberal consensus of his day focusing attention on the sovereignty of God rather than human standpoints. In his insistence on the sovereign initiative of God and Christ’s reconciling work, he clashed with Emil Brunner, Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. He stood as courageously as Bonhoeffer against Nazi totalitarianism, formulating the Barmen Declaration, and eventually losing his faculty position in Bonn when he could not swear loyalty to Hitler. He lived for the rest of his life an exile in Switzerland.

Yet evangelicals have often been uneasy about Barth. From the early opposition of Cornelius Van Til down to present day concerns about Barth’s view of scripture and fears of the universalist implications of his soteriology, many evangelicals have wanted to hold Barth at arms length. Mark Galli, as editor in chief of Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism, gets that, and yet offers in this slim volume a sketch of Barth’s life, and theological work, and what evangelicals might learn and gain from this, even if they retain their reservations.

Galli traces the theological development of Barth in the liberal protestant tradition shaped by Schleiermacher and his mentor Adolph von Harnack. He describes the “conversion” of Barth from a young social activist and socialist pastor through his study of Romans, and how the publication of his commentary on Romans rocked the theological world as he reasserted the centrality of God rather than human initiative, and God’s gracious action rather than even the best of human religious impulse. We trace his continued theological development as a professor first at Gottingen and then Bonn.

Galli shows us both the courageous and human side of Barth. He was one of the first to recognize the dangerous pretensions of Nazism and its insidious foothold in the German Church, and led the resistance to this in the formulation and promulgation of the Barmen Declaration, affirming the precedence of the sovereign God over any human sovereignties and that the church could not relent to political captivity to any ideology. This led to Barth being stripped of his teaching position, and his emigration to Basel, Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life.

The human side was what Galli concedes was his “emotional adultery” with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, his research assistant for many years. Despite the strains this placed on his marriage, he was unwilling to break off this relationship, and it seems that Barth and his wife Nelly eventually reached some kind of understanding. Even after Karl’s death, Nelly regularly visited Charlotte, an Alzheimer’s victim. This may say something of Nelly, about whom I wish Galli might have told us more.

It is impossible in a book of this length to adequately summarize the Church Dogmatics. Galli focuses on the two aspects that have often been of concern to evangelicals, and while not removing them as cause for reservation, he points out aspects from which evangelicals might learn. With regard to scripture, he acknowledges the problems of Barth’s position of God’s authoritatively revealing himself through a fallible scripture, yet he observes Barth’s Bible-centered practice, how extensively he cited scripture, and always with a view to it’s authority as God’s witness, not in criticism of its faults. He also tackles Barth’s ideas of “universal reconciliation.” He contrasts the Reformers “If you repent and believe, you will be saved” with Barth’s “You are saved; therefore believe and repent.” He sees in this a position that may have the promise of ending the impasse between Calvinist and Arminian positions, while acknowledging the further work that remains.

Finally, Galli takes up what he sees as a fundamental challenge to contemporary evangelicalism. In Barth’s unflinching commitment to the initiative of God, he sees a challenge to an evangelicalism at once focused on subjective experience and on human activism in doing good. He sees in these trends a theology not unlike that of Schleiermacher, even while clinging to evangelical affirmations. He trenchantly observes

The point is not to make a sweeping condemnation of evangelicalism, as if it were the epitome of nineteenth century liberalism. The point is not to look to Barth as our theological savior. The point is to suggest that the theology Barth eventually found bankrupt, and so ardently battled, is a theology we understand and identify with at some level. That we imbibe it unthinkingly is a problem, because as Barth’s theology demonstrates, it is an approach that brings with it a host of problems, problems that undermine not only the church’s integrity but especially its evangelistic mission” (p. 145).

Galli gives us a succinct biography that leaves us much to consider. Would we have Barth’s courage to stand against a compromised church and a powerful regime? What place does the “strange world of the Bible” have in shaping our world? How central in our thinking is God’s initiative in salvation? In Barth’s “no” to the natural theology of Brunner, and nineteenth century liberalism, do we also hear a “no” to our own generation’s human pretensions? Galli, a skilled editor, also serves us as a skilled writer, using few words to give us much to consider.

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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.

The Evangelical Penumbra?

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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Ross Douthat, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” proposed that evangelical intellectuals and writers and their friends might be part of an “evangelical penumbra” that has overestimated the role of serious theology (and thought in general) to evangelicalism’s sociological success. He raises the question in light of the 81 percent who voted for President Trump whether this “penumbra” might leave evangelicalism, and what this would expose about the movement that is left, one predominantly white and racially segregated, and perhaps more committed to American greatness than the kingdom of God.

In case you are wondering, a “penumbra” is the outer region affected by an eclipse, that is only in a partial shadow or weakened light. In the recent eclipse that crossed North America, central Ohio, where I live was in the penumbra of the eclipse while areas to the south experienced total eclipse. As it happens, I also live in the penumbra Douthat writes about and I deeply resonate with Douthat’s concerns. I’ve lived in a world where we read the Bible cover to cover and discovered a gospel that transcends racial, economic, gender, and national boundaries and a God who loves the world he created and wants us to love and care for it as well. I’ve lived in a world where the transforming work of Christ calls me to not only personal but social holiness–a life pursuing personal integrity and justice in society. I find myself far from perfect in all of this, but unwilling to rationalize my imperfections or the ways our communities of faith fall short. I’ve lived in a world of “taking every thought captive to Christ,” where knowing Christ leads to a kind of intellectual renaissance in which every intellectual endeavor is immeasurably enriched by knowing it is shot through with the glory of God.

It stings to wake up and find that what one assumed to be authentic evangelical Christianity is in fact marginal to much of this movement. No wonder so many of my friends are disenchanted and have decided either to drop the name or leave altogether. I find myself wrestling with what to do about that myself. It seems like a futile thing to say that the evangelicalism of Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress is not really evangelicalism when it appears that a majority of white evangelicals identify with that evangelicalism. Yet what disturbs me more is that if I am living in the penumbra, to pursue Douthat’s analogy, then these folks are in the umbra, the place of darkness. I have to admit that it really looks dark to me–politically captive as opposed to being captivated by Christ, considering national greatness more important than the kingdom of God, willing to perpetuate and deepen our racial wounds rather than to heal them, and turning a blind eye to sins they would preach against in their own churches to advance a narrow political agenda.

Dean William Inge is perhaps most famous for his remark that “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” I tremble when I consider what is happening right now because I see a movement that is destined to be a bereft widow–abandoned both by the young and the powerful in the years to come. I also haven’t got a clue what will awaken those I see pursuing this destructive path, apart from a Damascus road-type encounter with the Lord himself. It seems this group has no interest in listening to those in the “penumbra.”

So what does one do? Yesterday, I reviewed a book titled Faithful Presence, and I think the author is onto something. I see many local congregations (including my own) that embrace the beliefs that have been a part of my life, who are practicing this kind of faithful presence where I live. They’ve neither departed from an evangelical faith, nor embraced the truncated version of that faith about which Douthat writes. I don’t despair when I look at them. They aren’t trying to wield political clout or stack “the court.” They are too busy feeding the hungry, visiting prisons, finding ways to collaborate with our state’s leaders in addressing our opioid crisis, and forging relationships across racial and economic lines to engage in such stuff. They are too busy thinking about the nations of the world to think about making only one nation great. And they still believe that the good news of Christ’s redeeming work is far more important than the latest “tweet.”

One thing that must also be observed. The people I’m talking about are often part of neither the intellectual or media “elites” within evangelicalism nor the “court” evangelicalism about which Douthat is concerned. Many are thoughtful people who are less interested in writing or talking about their faith than simply living it in their congregations, communities, and workplaces. My hunch is that if anything will endure the winnowing (and widowing) of evangelicalism, it will be these people, who quietly have been the presence of Christ in their communities. And that’s where I think I must remain.

Ten Books For Understanding Evangelicalism

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My copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There, purchased c. 1972.

In a review of Carl F. H. Henry’s classic The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism the other day, I mentioned a conversation in which I wondered aloud how many of those who leave evangelicalism understand the rich, if imperfect, part of the Christian family they are leaving. My own sense is that often, though not always, they are responding to distortions or downright contradictions of historical evangelicalism. I recognize that for some it is a matter of leaving the incredibly painful, and may well be warranted, but I sense for others, it is wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. I won’t try to answer that, but would propose that it might first be important to appraise the grass on the evangelical side of the fence.

The friend I was talking with asked me about some books he might consider. This is a kind of expansion on my response. I suggest two kinds of books here. Some are histories, which go back to Great Britain as well as our own national beginnings. The others are “classics”–books that for many of us shaped an evangelical outlook. At the end, I provide links to some other lists–mine is hardly exhaustive–but rather a starting point.

Histories:

David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern BritainLondon: Routledge, 1988. The history of Wesley to John Stott is covered here, as well as Bebbington’s crucial delineation of four evangelical distinctives: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism.

Donald W. Dayton and Douglas M Strong, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionGrand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period. (From my review).

George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American CultureOxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. This book looks at the retrenchment of evangelicalism into fundamentalism in the U.S. post Civil War, with the rise of Darwinism, European biblical scholarship, and the “social gospel” associated with theologically liberal Christianity. The new edition tracks this movement since the 1970’s in its more politically engaged form.

Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical MindGrand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995. Noll explores the historical reasons for the lack of evangelical influence in the academy, the arts, and “high” culture. This book served as a kind of rallying cry for a group of us involved in launching a national ministry effort with graduate students and faculty.

Brian Stanley, The Global Diffusion of EvangelicalismDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. This is part of InterVarsity’s “History of Evangelicalism” series (all worth reading) that covers the post-World War II rise of modern or neo-evangelicalism–the evangelicalism of Billy Graham and John Stott, and an increasingly global leadership. Here is my review of the book.

Classic Formative Works:

Charles W. Colson, Born AgainGrand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2008 (revised edition). The biography of White House aide and Watergate conspirator Charles Colson and his conversion to a socially engaged evangelical faith that led to launching Prison Fellowship, and a career as an influential social commentator within the evangelical community.

J. I. Packer, Knowing GodDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993 (revised edition). This was a classic for many of us that explored how we may know God, the attributes of God, and benefits of knowing God. You read a few pages, and then had to stop, think, and worship.

Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is ThereDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998 (revised edition). Schaeffer was the prophet of L’Abri whose analysis of a culture that had moved further and further from God gave us a framework to make sense of our times.

Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of HungerNashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005 (revised edition). Sider was one of the voices that re-awakened the slumbering social conscience of evangelicals, challenging the privatized versions of the Bible with it social teaching, as well as exposing American Christians to the challenge of global hunger.

John R. W. Stott, Basic ChristianityDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012 (revised edition). This was a book that taught many of us the basics of our faith and how to explain it to others.

The histories, I think, are even-handed, showing both the best and the worst. Likewise, the “classic” works I’ve selected are not without their flaws, but are representative of books that reflect some of the “best” of evangelicalism and were important in shaping the outlook of many of us.

The list is hardly exhaustive. My friend said, “there is only so much I can read. But as I researched this post, I came along a few other lists you might visit:

The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals. A list published in 2006 by Christianity Today.

10 of the Best Books About Evangelical Christianity. I appreciate Kyle Roberts inclusion of Amos Yang’s work and also Soong Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism.

Five Great Books on Evangelical Christianity. Thomas Kidd narrows it down even more and includes Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith–a very important book!

What all these do is go beyond the media soundbites which rarely do justice to any religious tradition. Whether you are an evangelical or someone diffident about this identity, or you are just trying to understand this group of people who seem to be so much in the news, these lists should help. Happy reading!