20 April 2006

Evangelical machismo

from www.amazon.comYoung evangelical rebels who are leveraging postmodernism in creative, positive ways are giving me lots of hope. A great example of what I mean is the book Postmission, which I'll quote below.

However, some of the rhetoric that's coming from these circles reminds me of the personality-driven wordsprays of times gone by. The structure of this older rhetoric often went like this: If we were really disciples, if we were really like the first-century church, if we really loved God, we would (do whatever the usually male speaker, addicted as he was to crowd adulation, wanted us to do).

All this perhaps relates to what Northwest Yearly Meeting pastor Stan Thornburg has called the "whamo theory of grace," by which we ratchet ourselves up according to external measures of religious adequacy while God, at the top of our stepladder, waits with a big hammer to clobber us whenever we inevitably stumble.

There is an audience for this ratchet rhetoric. I remember attending a quarterly meeting in Central Yearly Meeting, in Westfield, Indiana, listening to the speaker trash his audience: "You holiness Christians are pathetic. You're a pale imitation of what true disciples should be. When are you going to get past the baby food and truly live a 100% sanctified life?" or words to that effect. By all appearances, his audience was eating it up.

Now, some of the newer stuff is far more positive. See the examples that Scott Wagoner quotes in a recent post on his weblog [now archived; scroll down to April 3]. My heart beats more quickly when I read such sentences as "...this generation is challenging the Church to perform what it proclaims, or, to use less elegant language, to put up or shut up." (Scott McKnight.) Or this: "What if the religion generally associated with Jesus neither expects nor trains its adherents to actually live in the way of Jesus?" (Brian McLaren.)

One of the writers exemplifying the new evangelical machismo is Irwin Raphael McManus. In The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith Within, he writes: "Somewhere along the way the movement of Jesus Christ became civilized as Christianity. We created a religion using the name of Jesus Christ and convinced ourselves that God's optimal desire for our lives was to insulate us in a spiritual bubble where we risk nothing, sacrifice nothing, lose nothing, worry about nothing. I wonder how many of us have lost our barbarian way and have become embittered with God, confused in our faith because God doesn't come through the way we think He should."

An unkind little demon whispers into my left ear: "Did any of these new-wave celebrities go to live in Baghdad? Did any of them refuse war taxes? Why are most of them men?" That's not quite fair; much ground-level activism goes on in some of these circles; see Ron Sider's Cup of Water, Bread of Life and Tom Sine's books for examples. But my main point today is that if we let these writers and speakers set us up either for an impossible heroism of our own (another stepladder with God's mallet at the top) or for a vicarious heroism that only they can embody on our behalf, it's empty. Loud but empty.

Most American believers will probably still get up in the morning, rub the sleep from their eyes, dress their children for school, go to jobs that imperfectly reflect their giftedness, come home and make dinner, read and watch television, and prepare late Saturday evening for the next day's Sunday school lesson. Many, perhaps most, will anxiously struggle with financial paradoxes of unsustainable affluence.

A few will do outwardly extraordinary feats of discipleship; a few will be in prison for their convictions; a few will travel the lecture circuit or write books about real or imagined feats of spiritual athletics. For most of us, the greater conformity to Christ will happen between the lines: we forgive more rapidly, confess and resist addictions more consistently, speak out against injustice more openly, reveal our faith more creatively, consume more judiciously, interact in our meetings and churches more transparently, assess and critique more generously, live more prayerfully. We will love more passionately, treat ourselves and others more tenderly. We will laugh and cry more often. And the upwardly reinforcing spiral will transform our world.

(part two here.)

Julia Ewen on taxes: "... [T]he tax story is about who will we give authority over us--Jesus or the religious establishment? Caesar/taxes is a secondary derivative issue if an issue at all. The contexting story (the seven husbands) really consigns the 'tax' issue to the realm of the dead--those who worry about paying taxes are missing the point. They belong to the 'dead', not the living, and God is the God of the living. Worry about people, not about money, is a consistent theme of Jesus."

Julia's important Bible study on conscience, taxes, and discipleship, was originally published on the quaker-theology listserv. Please read it, and if you agree that it's useful, please use it in adult education settings and wherever Friends (or anyone) can reflect on it. (Posted with her permission. Julia is a member of Atlanta Friends Meeting in Georgia.)

From Postmission: World Mission by a Postmodern Generation [archive link], edited by Richard Tiplady:
The preoccupation with sexual sin is typical of the evangelical obsession with the individual, which is itself syncretistically rooted in modernity's notion of the autonomous self, rather than scripture's self-in-community. Perhaps in reaction to liberal Christianity's emphasis on the so-called social gospel, evangelicalism has tended to focus on the salvation of individuals, and especially their souls. It is therefore not surprising that an individualistic understanding of salvation was accompanied by an individualistic understanding of discipleship and holiness, hence the evangelistic call to 'accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour.' Thus 'holiness' and 'morality' were reduced to personal individual sins such as sexual behaviour, dress codes, divorce, alcohol taboos, tithing, abortion, swearing, 'dirty' jokes and so on.

In contrast with modernity's obsession with the individual, postmodernity calls us back to a more holistic and community-based understanding of what it means to be human, and postmodern Christians have enthusiastically welcomed this return to scriptural values. In turn, postmodern Christians, missionaries included, are likely to be more concerned with moral issues such as weapons of mass destruction, environmental destruction, women's rights, Third World debt, racism, exploitation of child labour and so on. Major tensions are inevitable when such missionaries find themselves working alongside colleagues who wrongly attribute such concerns to worldly left-wing politics and who themselves equate Christianity with right-wing political opinions. The tensions are heightened when in turn the postmodern missionary appears to give far less importance, or none whatsoever, to traditional evangelical virtues such as sober dress, teetotalism, the 'rightful' place of women in the home and church, and avoidance of venues such as bars and night-clubs. [Peter Stephenson, Joanne Goode and Carolyn Cole, page 23]

In the context of spirituality, we would like also to make mention of another area of potential tension and conflict: the way in which the Bible itself is perceived and used (that is, the matter of hermeneutics). Generation X missionaries are likely to have a more moderate and provisional confidence in their own understanding of Scripture that their modernist missionary colleagues mistakenly interpret as accommodation to a liberal/postmodern rejection of absolute truth. However, it is important to stress that postmodernism doesn't so much reject the concept of absolute objective truth but rather has grave doubts about the capacity of human reason to grasp that truth. Indeed, postmodern philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard insist that all claims to have grasped absolute truth are in fact tools of oppression ('If I have the absolute truth, you must obey and follow me, otherwise you are deviant'). Postmodern Xer missionaries are not likely to doubt the trustworthiness and truthfulness of Scripture itself, but they will probably distrust the ability of both themselves and others to interpret Scripture faultlessly. [Same writers, page 27.]
Later in the book (pp. 68-69), Paula Harris's chapter on "Postmodernism is not the Antichrist" includes this thoughtful summary:
... Postmodernity is not about deconstructing the Gospel. It is about deconstructing modernity. Far from being frightened of postmodernity, we should welcome its questions—they will help us seek ways to enculturate the Gospel for a new generation. Postmodernity does not confront Jesus; it confronts the idols of modern culture that we in the West have failed to renounce. With the words of wisdom from the elders in Acts 15, we now know that no culture can retain its tribal deities when we become Christian. Theologian and cross-cultural scholar Miroslav Volf says the shift from modern to postmodern culture is helping us to identify our tribal idols in the West. He identifies our idols as belief in human progress, reason, technology, quantification and the attempt to build a heaven out of worldly hell.* Missiologist David Bosch makes a similar list for what happened to the church and mission under modernity:

- Reason supplanted faith as a beginning point for Christians and missionaries. A fact/value distinction was created and applied to science/religion. Christians responded by desperately defending the 'objective truth' (e.g., 'fact' of religion).
- The Enlightenment's strict subject-object separation was applied to theology ... creating an 'ugly ditch' of history separating us from the past.
- The church and mission became captive to the philosophy of progress ... 'the idea of the imminent this-worldly global triumph of Christianity ... is intimately related to the modern spirit'.
- Christians came to believe the idea that all problems were in principle solvable, ruling out miracles, pushing God to the margins of human knowledge and ingenuity, and attempting to ignore or resolve the problem of evil.
- The church disintegrated into a loose gathering of 'emancipated, autonomous individuals' who made their own decisions about what they believed.**
* Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 1996).
** David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 1997), pp. 269-70. [One of my own favorite nonfiction books of all time.]

Norwegian machismo: Yesterday, Associated Press reported that the new Kon-Tiki expedition, with a raft named Tangaroa, is nearly ready for its April 28 starting date. Being a distant relative of Thor Heyerdahl (whose son and grandson are involved with this new voyage), I can hardly contain my excitement.

Next year will be the 60th anniversary of the original Kon-Tiki expedition. But the timing of the new voyage is partly a commemoration of the events a century ago that led to Norway's ultimately peaceful separation from Sweden. See expedition news and weblog.


Paul L said...

Thank you for the Julia Ewen article.

It opens a lot for me, and has echoes of what a favorite professor tried to use Jacques Ellul to teach us about.

Johan Maurer said...

Julia always writes this thoughtfully. Lucky Atlanta Friends!


Nancy A said...

I am fascinated by this idea of a "whamo theory of grace" (so aptly named). I'm also fascinated by the distinction between individual morality (modern) and collective morality (postmodern). I think to a large extent, the masses of Christians are already at this postmodern morality stage; the clergy and leadership are the ones holding up the show, in the name of some kind of orthodoxy. But as the article pointed out, it isn't really orthodoxy they're upholding: it's modernity.

Wonderful distinction.

Yet at the same time, I sense arestlessness in Christian culture for some kind of new hero, some light shining in a new direction, to provide an alternative to dry mainstream and extreme fundamentalism. Perhaps in the way that our thinking has to move from individual morality to collective morality, we need to move our thinking from individual heroism to collective heroism.

Lorcan said...

Re: Kon Tiki... wonderful! The book was one of two which put me on the road to going to sea ( which I guess WAS a good thing... maybe... hmmm ), the other being The Last Grain Race, my feet were already pretty well soaked in brine when I fell in love with (Quaker writier) Jan de Hartog's many sea books...

Thanks for the news