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Evangelical Christians and Change

August 23, 2014

Those of us who have been part of Evangelical Christianity or have been close to the movement tend to have the impression that it never changes.

That is not far off… in that most Evangelicals and their leaders do take a timeless view of God and of “absolute truth”.  Such truth is, to them, revealed in the Bible.  Their concept is that current Evangelical or “Bible-believing” faith represents the faith “once for all delivered to the Saints” in the first century.  There is indeed a lot of resistance to both internal change and to supporting cultural change, especially around things involving sexuality.

However, as this fascinating article by a Scottish Anglican Provost claims, Evangelicals do change, even on issues they take very seriously, but tend to lag about 30 years behind the broader culture.  

The article is titled “10 Things Evangelicals Don’t Tell You at First”.  It’s not that these ten things (or others) are carefully-guarded secrets.  They are not actively hidden from outsiders or new members.  But at least some of them are either not realized by less-informed Evangelicals or are downplayed in most church services (such as belief in a literal hell and who is believed to be headed there).

There are other good insights in this fairly short article… things I find to be true to both the American Evangelicalism I grew up in and left about 20 years ago and to what I observe of current Evangelicalism.  Take a look, here.

How Big is the Christian Tent?

August 12, 2014

There is an article on Christianity Today‘s website, recently posted, summarizing a panel discussion among some Christian leaders, including the author, Ed Stetzer.  I found it encouraging on one level and frustrating on another.

The article explains that the discussion (the audio of which they link to) focused a lot on issues of salvation.  It asks, as did the participants in the panel, under what circumstances Christians can cooperate on missions given their differences, among other similar questions.  I’m encouraged with this example of somewhat greater concern merely TO cooperate and to be mutually accepting than often in the past within traditional Christianity.  

At the same time, I’m frustrated that leaders like these remain largely bound within restrictive doctrinal (theological) systems.  They perhaps do not even recognize as “Christian” the versions of Christian theology and church practices that differ more significantly from them than do the conversation partners of this panel.  And this kind of thing is multiplied many times over…. Evangelicalism is actually (contrary to the popular media picture) getting more diverse, theologically open and generally more tolerant of differences. Yet its core and most key leaders still keep attempts at inclusion and cooperation largely “in-house”.

So I’ve set the context for what follows…. With the above situation in mind, here is the response I posted in the comment section of this article:

I’m glad to see this kind of discussion, as a former Evangelical.  My tradition and main alliances (schools and churches attended and ministered in and such), like the author’s, generally worked within the Calvinist-Arminian differences. This I was grateful for.

However, now with much deeper biblical and other study behind me, I see an even greater need to expand the conversation partners.  For example, why not include Process theologians and pastors much more often… or Evangelicals reach out to them and vice-versa? I realize a mild version of this happened mostly a couple or more decades ago when Open theology (still within Evangelicalism, so not as far along the same lines as Process goes) was being discussed more.

Yes, the entire paradigm of interpretation is different within Process and not able to be fully harmonized with a more traditional supernaturalist view of God and the Bible.  But at the least, more such conversations and attempts to cooperate on compassionate missions of helping neighbors (anyone, and in today’s world, anywhere) in need, would help both groups grow and live out more of the “gospel” (defined almost any way one will).

American Views of Religious Americans

July 25, 2014

Most religious people don’t care what other people feel about their religious group… supposedly!

The Pew Forum just released a survey of how Americans feel about their own as well as other religious groups… basically how positively or negatively they view them.  Why would they so such a survey?

Probably because people DO care what others think of them. Or at least a lot of us do, regardless if we say to ourselves or others that it doesn’t matter.  (The “doesn’t matter” is usually because what counts, on a conscious level, is getting it right as to views of God, the Bible, etc.) And to the truly mature, the views of most other people really doesn’t matter (but that’s a very small percentage of people, in my understanding).

I won’t spend much time summarizing the interesting Pew survey results – just a couple highlights and refer you to their website’s report here.  Jews, Roman Catholics, and Evangelical Christians are all viewed similarly… and most positively by Americans overall.  Respectively, at 63, 62, and 61 percent.  (The survey was worded such that 50% is neutral, below that, negative.)

What should be noted, however, is that each group, such as Evangelicals and Catholics, are included in the totals, and these two are the largest religious groups in the U.S.  According to the tables on the Pew Forum site, Protestants who reported were broken into three groups: “White evangelical”,  “White mainline” and “Black Protestant”, while only “Evangelical Christian” was listed as a group that people reported on, as to how they felt toward them.  Another important fact is that the size of the reporting group is quite large: 3217 people.

As one would expect, including a sizable number of one’s own group increases its overall favorability quite a bit.  In the case of Evangelicals, for example, their white members rated the group at 82, versus the 61 overall rating.  (Their rating from all others, non-evangelicals, was only 52, slightly above neutral.)

The most negative views of another group happen to go both ways between two not-surprising ones: Evangelicals view atheists at only 25 and atheists view Evangelicals at 28.  That would seem to be explained as each viewing the others’ beliefs as detrimental and/or dangerous.  I doubt that it has a strong interpersonal dimension: the survey also affirms the common-sense view that when you know someone of another group personally, you are more likely to see them positively than you do the group as a whole.

Who Really Believes in Hell? (Not Who You Would Think)

July 7, 2014

People are concerned enough about their own or others’ destiny after death that they will study and discuss it at length.  This is a recurring topic on many Christian or other blogs (including this one).

Today it has popped up on the popular Christian (and relatively Evangelical, but not rigidly so) blog called Jesus Creed, by Scot McKnight.  Kind of an interesting angle, in that it involves the major Evangelical figure, widely respected, the late John R. Stott (British).  Here was my contribution to the discussion there, which I think is an important “stand-alone” point, regardless whether you go to McKnight’s post or not:

I was thoroughly Evangelical, including on eternal punishment and substitutionary atonement from high school, through Biola Univ., Talbot Sch. of Theol., Christian Res. Inst. (with Walter Martin) and beyond, to well over age 40.  But ongoing, deeper study changed that eventually.

With a different view of the authority of Scripture now, I can see more clearly how people “operate” in terms of difficult doctrines and general belief systems.  Seems pretty clear to me that, regardless of which view is truly “biblical”, the vast majority of even conservative Evangelicals do not actually believe in either annihilation OR eternal punishment, whatever their stated belief.

The evidence? That very few people actually ACT like they do.  That is, they do not witness continually (or probably much at all), even to friends or family who “don’t know the Lord”, let alone all the other “lost” people they encounter daily.  Some may pray more consistently but even they usually won’t pursue every direct means of getting the Gospel across to people, as would be expected for every person transformed and infused by the love of God who ALSO believes most other people around them are bound either for eternal suffering or extinction.

I have some guesses but am not quite sure why we allow ourselves to be so self-deluded (as I once was also) as to really believing in hell or annihilationism.  So we do all these intellectual “explorations” or study to supposedly come to the “right” or biblical view… all the time disbelieving, really (and thankfully, as I see it) in the whole hell concept.

On this Independence Day, Is the Old Civil Religion Dead?

July 4, 2014

stock-photo-2964519-united-states-capitol
I’m just inside this part of July 4th, trying to stay cool! And not wanting to exert my brain a lot either, to write an in-depth article…. SO… some food for thought to go along with all the other food this week-end.

First, in speaking of “civil religion”, is this even a term familiar to you?

If not, the brief article in Wikipedia will get you up to speed on the basics, quickly.  There is a lot to explore about and within the subject beyond this, of course… entire books, courses, etc.  For here, just the general concept: Civil religion involves religious or quasi-religious ideas, symbols, etc. that are shared by a large portion of a nation (or similar societal structure) across specifically religious lines — the use of “God language” by politicians, prayers or biblical quotes at meetings or commemorations, religious placards (such as the Ten Commandments), or structures such as crosses at public places, etc.

So what is becoming of civil religion, do you think, as our national consciousness seems increasingly polarized? At the least, our political processes are increasingly polarized.  (I’ve heard a few researchers or commentators recently emphasizing that it is our political processes that is much more polarized than our citizenry, and I consider this likely to be true.)

Is there even a proper place for “civil” religion in things to do with government, under the US Constitution? Or should the “no establishment” clause rule out even this more common-ground and “generic” kind of religious speech or symbolism?  

Just my opinion on this: It is and always will be impossible to draw clear lines between what is “religious” and what is “secular”, so until something becomes clearly excessive–at least to me(!)–I don’t begrudge people some public symbolism, some mixing of God-talk into the political process….

On the other hand, I do believe many traditional Christians are in freak-out mode with the rapidity of change in a number of areas, and this is prompting outcries, lawsuits, etc., that are indeed “excessive” or ill-founded.  They are often merely reactionary when there is little or no true threat–for example to “religious liberty” or freedom of speech.

What gets you alarmed, on either “side” (or anywhere) on these issues? 

Isn’t Religion Mostly Social?

June 20, 2014

If you’ve been following even the general news through mainstream media, you’ve probably been hearing about ongoing and perhaps increasing religious tensions over same-sex marriage and related issues (ordination, welcoming gays, etc.).   

Most recently it’s been the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA) which has taken a key vote in their General Assembly and strongly approved of performing same-sex weddings where such marriages are legal.  For one article on this here is that of the New York Times.  A more religious (and conservative) look at the PCUSA decision is here, in Christianity Today.

The controversy on this is spread throughout many denominations and has been a major contributor toward denominational splits, or many churches leaving for other denominations or full independence.

What should this be telling us? Are there issues “behind the issues”? (Undoubtedly there are.) 

There are probably a dozen or more good answers as to what such controversies are about.  But one thing I am convinced it shows is that religion is at least as much social as it is theological (or “biblical”).  

Isn’t it disturbing that so few people recognize this?

The debates, on this issue like many others, tend to outwardly center on people’s interpretation of the Bible.  Or just their inner sense of what “God’s definition of marriage” is.  I guess we like to think that God endorses whatever we happen to be used to…. whatever we think is important to social stability. (Or at least to keeping us comfortable.)

That’s not to say that no case is possible for gay marriage or any given trend supporting or undermining social stability.  But, although I follow this issue a fair amount, I’ve not seen Christians making such a case.  Yes, they discuss the few Bible passages that deal at least peripherally with it.  But no in-depth, developed case re. the social dynamics, issues, etc.  Again, that I have seen.  What have you seen, if anything?

And do you agree that much more of Christianity is an endorsement of status quo social mores than Christians want to admit? 

“Eccentricity: A Spirituality of Difference” – Book Review

June 19, 2014

Eccentricity is a recently-released short book with a unique angle on Christian spirituality.  No, it’s not about being eccentric in the way we typically use the word… not about appearing odd or being a bit on the crazy side.

But the book is about how we all are different, as God is different… particularly different from any of us!  We might say the author, David Auten’s, theme is our personal uniqueness.  And how that reflects the image of God in us.  And how that can (and should) lead to using our difference to make a difference.

 Eccentricity is the quality of difference.  Both the state of being different, as every person of every age is, as well as the positive difference (the positive influence) that one can have on one’s environment and the interconnectedness of the two.  Such eccentricity marks the very core of who you are…. [It] is the quality of deliberate difference whereby we intentionally embrace the difference that we are and that we can become in order to make a difference.

I don’t recall whether Auten uses this exact word in relation to recognizing our individual differences, but it’s fair to say he wants us to celebrate the difference we are… that we are different from even our close relatives and friends, in often significant ways.  This is a message that needs to be repeatedly heard by teens or young adults who are often troubled by being and especially by appearing different from their friends.  There is a psychological need to fit in, to be blended, as it were, at a certain stage of development.

The message of this book can help one move one through this a bit faster, learning some things at the same time.  Things beyond mere psycho-social adjustment.  More on this shortly.

One small concern (a mild criticism) about the book is that its prime audience might indeed be mid-to-late adolescents, but that its language and style is probably more suited to college graduates or the more intellectual of college students.  I do consider it quite readable, but probably somewhat a stretching exercise for the average reader, and youth especially.

This is mainly in terms of the vocabulary…. Although I have graduate degrees and study philosophy (some) and theology (a lot), I learned a few new terms myself!  As to being engaging, it was to me. Part of that, in my case, was its philosophical nature.  It gives us numerous quotes from prominent and not-so-prominent thinkers who present insights into our ways of being and acting, in terms of both psychology and theology.  Also included is a suitable and interesting amount of self-revelation.  Presumably with her permission, he also “tells” a bit on his wife and on their relationship – a warm and personal touch to the book. You can tell that Auten’s insights and encouragements grow out of his own experience, not just a summary of the many related books he obviously has read and which are listed in a substantial bibliography.  (The footnotes are sometimes of real interest as well, and should not be skipped.)

In Eccentricity you won’t find any denominational theology (Auten happens to be a United Church of Christ pastor); nor much that almost any kind of Christian would probably object to.  As a progressive, I can and do recommend it for other progressives, though I’m not 100% comfortable with a few statements.  I would imagine that most traditionalists would also recommend it, knowing the orthodox perspective and theology myself from long being on the inside of them earlier in life.

One of the main sections of the book deals with our individual “differentness” as a reflection of the image of God.  There is a good summary of various views on just what is the “image of God” in humanity.  With this, just who God is, how we may properly think of defining God. (As I do here, Auten avoids gender pronouns for God, skillfully, so that it seldom seems strained as it sometimes can be. I find his care especially fitting for a discussion on the image of God as carried by humans… not a male image, nor a female one).

Another long section is on the differences within ourselves – the various personas we take on.  Here he covers the major factors we often get “wrong” in terms of the wearing of masks.  It’s not, according to Auten, that all use of “masquerade” (one chapter title) is unhealthy.  Rather, it is inevitable and proper that we wear “masks”, with certain qualifications.  There are valid, important reasons to reveal or not reveal certain aspects of ourselves in various relationships.  His point is that there is not a single persona within us that we can call our “authentic self”.  Does the way we interact with a close friend represent our “authentic self” more than what we are like with our spouse? (Or vice-versa, as just one sample case?) He also points out the rather common-sense problems with the concept of “radical honesty”.  Not having read Brad Blanton’s popular book on the subject, I appreciated the summary and critique of it here.  We really can’t be 100% honest and “true to ourselves” while being fully loving or “true to others” at the same time…. We use discernment to make what are hopefully balanced, loving choices (with as little lying as possible).

A nice feature of the book is that each fairly short chapter ends with five questions and suggestions for “Reflection and Group Discussion”.  These are helpful both for individuals and for a class or discussion group which may be reading the book.  There indeed is a lot in it to provoke deeper thought.  Some personal journaling and/or group discussion is an excellent way to pound home, in practical ways, this kind of personally helpful material.

I highly recommend the book.  And I expect a group discussion of it would be quite stimulating and helpful for creating genuine and spiritual community among members.   

[A free review copy of the book was sent to me by the publisher, Cascade Books of Eugene, OR, which did not influence the way in which I reviewed the book.]

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