30 August 2018

Good news or bad news?

Paula White reads inscription on Bible. "History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations." Source.
About 45 years ago the Mennonite Central Committee published a booklet, Evangelism: Good News or Bad News? The booklet became part of a study package distributed by the New Call to Peacemaking, an initiative of Norval Hadley and Evangelical Friends. The New Call found its first organizational home in the Faith and Life Movement staffed by Robert Rumsey of the Friends World Committee for Consultation. In 1976 it became a joint effort by the three largest peace churches, Friends, Church of the Brethren, and Mennonites.

I first heard about the New Call to Peacemaking in 1976 at the Friends World Committee's Triennial sessions in Hamilton, Ontario, which I attended as an observer from the host yearly meeting. (This was where I heard T. Canby Jones speaking about Hiroshima.) With great anticipation I ordered the study materials, and was not disappointed. In particular I was impressed by that pamphlet on evangelism.

Forgive a bit more personal context. As a new Christian, I sometimes felt that I was developing a split personality. From the Ottawa Friends Meeting I received such treasures ... a place to worship and grow in my faith, with none of the trappings of the religion industry that (under the influence of my atheist parents) I was still allergic to. Also, they provided me with wonderful mentors such as Deborah Haight, Anne Thomas, Len and Betty Huggard, and so many others. Their kindness, and the constant encouragement of the whole community (who put up patiently with my naive enthusiasms) gave me a firm Quakerly identity that carries me to this day.

However, Ottawa Friends had their brittle places. Too much outward enthusiasm was not appropriate. Also, I gradually became aware that not everyone was as convinced as I was that Friends were simply a revival of apostolic Christianity. For a wider emotional range, and a more direct engagement with the Bible, I also began attending an informal house church I found out about through fellow students at Carleton University. That group was a bit like a hub, with spokes that went outward into all sorts of fascinating interests -- Eastern Orthodox theology, Christian-Marxist dialogues, Amnesty International. With each of these two groups, the Quakers and the house church, I behaved appropriately for that group while absorbing the discontinuity within myself. Occasionally I invited my house-church friends to come to my Friends meeting with me, and several took me up on it, but as far as I remember, nobody stayed.

Yet another part of my early faith experience was the charismatic fellowship that my Canadian relatives were part of, and which offered me yet another vision of Christian freedom ... until, at some point, it didn't: it became more like an authoritarian cult.

That booklet, Evangelism: Good News or Bad News?, helped me integrate all of my multiple spiritual identities. I was impressed that its authors (Frank Epp, John Stoner, and John Toews) dared to suggest that evangelism, as actually practiced, could be bad news. Their message was clear: yes, the good news of Jesus was about eternity and the Realm of Heaven, but that eternity starts now. The good news is good now. It begins healing and liberating now.

(I had already been hearing some of this message in non-Quaker settings -- for example, my summer internship at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall, Mississippi, in 1975 -- but in the New Call to Peacemaking, I saw that these insights were endorsed by Friends as well, and applied directly to the concern for peace and nonviolence that had brought me to Jesus in the first place. It was that same good news that had, in my own experience, broken the bondage of racism and the cult of obedience.)

In 1982, I was working at Quaker Hill Bookstore in Richmond, Indiana, when I came across another provocative book: Alfred Krass's Evangelizing Neopagan North America. Here's how he restated the concern for evangelism as genuine good news -- and whose interests might be served by keeping it safely in the by-and-by:
...Christians have from a very early time come to operate with a metaphysic which distinguishes sharply between the "eternal" and the "temporal," the "heavenly" and the "earthly." Only in brief periods of "enthusiasm" has the Christian community been able to dream of realizations of the eternal kingdom within time and space. We used to speak that way, you remember, of "eternal life," as that expression is used in the Fourth Gospel. It was something future, to be held out as a carrot before us. Then people began to realize that the writer of the fourth Gospel did not share the world-view of Hellenistic society. He really meant to describe the current life of Christ's followers as eternal life.

Similarly, Latin American theologians and biblical scholars have shown how we are still influenced by the metaphysic of Hellenism when we speak of the kingdom. Our glasses have kept us from accepting what the New Testament says about the kingdom: that it has entered our time and space. Not only our Hellenistic glasses are at fault, however. It's not a coincidence that it's in the interests of the world's ruling elite that Christians should have a delayed expectation of the kingdom. This makes them docile, law-abiding citizens who do not make embarrassing demands today. It threatens the status quo immensely when you have people around who expect and demand that oppressive situations be changed.
It's time to be honest. Everything I have written to this point today is here as a direct result of Monday's White House event to honor evangelical leaders. I really do not want Donald Trump to take up any more space in my blog and in my life -- and I also realize that you, dear patient reader, don't need me to provide insights that you wouldn't otherwise receive. But, just as with the Jerusalem embassy ceremony, the White House meeting and dinner again put a set of celebrity evangelical leaders in the national spotlight, in effect giving them a unique public setting to do the evangelizing that their label obliges them to do, in season and out of season. Instead, the main aim of the evening seems to have been to enlist them and their followers in the president's re-election campaign. If there was a peep of protest there, it never reached the public. As a self-described evangelical, I can't let this go unchallenged.

So: for the record, those court evangelicals (to use John Fea's term) do not speak for me. In honoring a president who incites division, verbally abuses his opponents, and treats vulnerable people the way he and his team do, their version of evangelism is not good news.

Good news or bad news, part two: Believe Me.

One more personal bit. I again crossed paths with the New Call to Peacemaking in 1983, when FWCC's Robert J. Rumsey retired and I was part of the team of FWCC field staff that replaced him. I inherited his stock of Evangelism: Good News or Bad News? and the other New Call materials. Staffing responsibilities for New Call had already passed to John K. Stoner of the Mennonites, but I was happy to help with distribution of these good resources.

While we're on the subject of God's kingdom, did Lou Reed (Velvet Underground) understand God's kingdom better than evangelicals do?

Adam Taylor on the Faustian bargain on full display at Trump's evangelical dinner. Bobby Ross comments on the dinner's media coverage.

Authentic Spirit-led evangelism: Adria Gulizia wants to help you get started. (On my blog, this study has been the most popular post of the last four months, with over 1,100 views. I hope its publication on Adria's own blog gets even wider circulation.)

John Inazu is still confident about "confident pluralism."

From RFE/RL: Declassified memos offer a fascinating window into the Bill Clinton-Boris Yeltsin relationship.

Putin makes a rare television speech to explain his support for a modified pension reform program. Meduza summarizes Vladimir Putin's proposed softening of the reform and the cost of the compromise. A rather jaundiced appraisal from Alexei Tsvetcoff. (In Russian: Navalny says "I told you so," and explains V. Putin's decision with statistics.)

"They call me Lazy; goodness knows I'm only tired." Goodbye, Leslie Carswell Johnson.

1 comment:

Leslie said...

YES, preach this good and gooder news