Michael Spencer on Evangelicals and the Culture War

Today I direct your attention to a post written by Michael Spencer back in 2006 in which he diagnosed the reasons for evangelicals’ attraction to involvement in the culture war.  Contrary to what the rhetoric would have us believe, it is not about a reinvigorated evangelicalism remaking its world because its people care deeply about the things Jesus cared about.  The truth is less flattering:  evangelicalism is empty on the inside and success in the culture war offers us the illusion of life, substance, and vitality.

Read:  The Tactics of Failure by Michael Spencer

This was written back in 2006.  The links below are current and should give you an idea of how bad things have gotten since then:

‘He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term

In God’s country: Evangelicals view Trump as their protector. Will they stand by him in 2020?

Why Some Christians ‘Love the Meanest Parts’ of Trump

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This Is What Love Requires of You?

Last week the government rounded up undocumented workers in a way that left children crying in parking lots on the first day of school.

“Today,…we are once again becoming a nation of laws”, said Mike Hurst, US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, on the day of the raids, which impacted food processing plants in central Mississippi.

Think about this through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  If you can make a compelling case that what love requires of you is to support a president for whom such inhumanity toward those who are not here legally is part and parcel of his policy and message…no.  Just no.  There is no such case to be made.  That’s all there is to it.

Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: Liminal Space

Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion:  Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.

If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.

The 2000 movie Cast Away is all about liminal space.

In the closing scenes, the character portrayed by Tom Hanks, of whom some of you may have heard, finds himself at a crossroads with new possibilities for his future life–and perhaps love–before him.  In his prior life he had been a fast-rising executive with a major international corporation, summoned away from his family–on Christmas eve, no less–to assist with solving a problem overseas.  The plane carrying him and his team crashed in the middle of the Pacific and left him stranded on a desert island.  He was the lone survivor.  For four years he survived, utilizing items found in the wreckage of his plane and on the island.  Finally he was rescued and returned home, only to find that his entire world–career, family, relationships–had long since given him up for dead and moved on without him.  There was now no possibility of him going back to his prior life and picking up where he left off.  After taking care of one last item of business from his prior life–returning a now-undeliverable package that he had salvaged from the wreckage of his plane to its sender at a home out in the country–he meets a woman in a pickup who, it is hinted, may offer direction for his life going forward.

“Liminal” comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold.  Liminal space, then, is the space between who you once were and who you are becoming.  We are changing, others around us are changing, the world itself is changing.

Some of you may be going through, or emerging from, seasons of life marked by disorientation and disruption resulting from loss:  Loss of job.  Loss of health via illness or injury.  Loss of loved ones via death or divorce.  Loss of opportunity for romantic connection.

Some of you may have seen your prospects move the other way via good fortune:  You got accepted to your dream school.  You got the scholarship.  You got the job.  You got the promotion.  He asked you out.  He proposed.  She said yes.  You’re having a baby.

Some of you are just having to deal with the natural life changes that are part and parcel of growing up and/or growing older, facing new roles and dealing with new realities.  You’re at school and away from home for the first time in your life.  You’re out on your own and having to pay bills now.  The kids have grown up and moved out.  Your body is changing, your metabolism isn’t what it was back when you were in college, gray hair is starting to come in, and you’ve got these new aches and/or pains that won’t go away.

Some of you have seen changes in the world around you, changes in yourself, perhaps both, and are coming to the realization that you just don’t fit in anymore.  Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and now no longer Christian (by his own admission), is a prime example of this.  In the process of working through misgivings he had lately begun to have about his work, he came to a place where he could no longer consider himself a Christian by any of the measures he had used up to that point.  For my own part, I am struggling to hold on to faith despite the immense changes in myself and in the evangelical world around me which lead me to believe that I don’t quite fit in anymore.  I am unsure at this point what I am becoming or what a life of faith will look like for me moving forward.

The ending of Cast Away is a tidy, emotionally satisfying ending, just what one would expect in a Hollywood movie, yet with just enough ambiguity to be at least somewhat believable in real life.  But real life is not like a Hollywood movie.  You can’t count on receiving a sign to foreshadow the way forward.

Herein lies one of the greatest shortcomings of evangelical spirituality.  In the evangelical world, the path of spiritual formation is one-dimensional:  Read your Bible.  Pray.  Attend church regularly.  Get involved and serve.  Share your faith with those around you (the word commonly used in many parts of evangelicalism is “witnessing”).  Pursue personal holiness:  that is, avoid sins and cultivate good habits.  Not that these aren’t good things to be doing in and of themselves–they are–yet this program is typically presented as a one-size-fits-all garment that will stretch to fit anyone of any size and any shape, apply in any imaginable circumstance, and equip one to face any conceivable challenge.

When life’s changes are acknowledged, too often spiritual leaders create the expectation that the Christian life is a journey with recognizable landmarks and that perceptible, measurable progress is to be expected.  This expectation is all over the place in evangelicalism.  Mission statements of many evangelical churches are quite clear in that they expect certain marks and measurements of growth to be evident in the lives of their members.

Real life is not that simple.  I’m sure we all, on some level at least, know better than that.  I wonder how many of us would be honest enough to stand up in our congregations and say something to the effect of “I see myself at a crossroads out in the middle of nowhere, with all roads stretching equally to the horizon, and no signs or landmarks anywhere indicating which is the way forward”?

Allow me to close with a quote from Richard Rohr:

…Where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown.  There alone is our world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.  That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin.  Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…

…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.  If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.

The Human Element of Faith

Josh Harris is now an atheist.

The author of the 1997 blockbuster I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which exploded off the shelves and launched the purity culture movement in American evangelicalism into high gear (where else but American evangelicalism does a 20-year-old homeschooled kid who had never kissed a girl get instantly recognized as a world-renowned expert on love, sex, and dating?), began to have serious misgivings about the fruit of his work a couple of years back.  This set him on a journey which led to the recent announcement via Instagram that he is no longer a Christian.

The author of a Neo-Calvinist blog entitled “The Chorus in the Chaos” wasted no time whatsoever in channeling his inner John Piper and issuing a “Farewell Joshua Harris“.

This is precisely why the entire Neo-Reformed/Neo-Calvinist stream of Christianity is on my shit list.

Completely and conspicuously absent from this author’s attempt to post-mortem Harris’s departure from the Christian faith is any mention whatsoever of the human element of faith.  People grow and change as they grow up and grow older, have new experiences and learn new things.  No one believes exactly the same things in the same way they did twenty or thirty years ago.  If you do, then I strongly recommend you check your pulse.  Harris is not the same person now that he was back in 1997, he does not believe the same things now that he did then, and his faith simply couldn’t handle the disconnect between who he is now and who he was then, thus his present state of unbelief.

I struggle with the same thing myself–trying desperately to hold on to faith when faced with the profound disconnect between who I am now and who I was back in happier times, so long ago when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical.  The “Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life” series was intended to illustrate my struggles in this regard.

As I have said before in this space, the “post-evangelical wilderness” is not some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around in front of a computer screen all day and write whatever strikes their fancy. It is a real place, inhabited by real people with real stories. It is a space where we are, to borrow a quote from Rachel Held Evans which I have used before, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

In all probability, Harris did not come lightly to his decision to leave the Christian faith.  This decision, and the journey leading up to it, were in all probability fraught with much grief from the loss of certainties he had held for much of his prior life, finding himself a complete stranger to himself because of all the changes happening inside, and living in that strange space between who he once was and who he is becoming.  When this author responds by issuing cheap soundbites about “how casually [Harris] has thrown away the preciousness of the Gospel”, it does a grave disservice.

Wayne Grudem on Biblical Inspiration

Frequently around these parts I have opined that the standard evangelical view of inspiration/inerrancy is much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.  Now I am a blogger and as such it is part and parcel of my unique calling to pull things out of thin air and make things up on the fly.  But I am not making this up.  I wish I was, but I am not.  Today I give you none other than American evangelicalism’s Dean of Systematic Theology (and lately turned political hack) himself:  Dr. Wayne Grudem.  Take a listen and judge for yourselves.

This is an expression of the standard evangelical view of biblical inspiration, par excellence.  Grudem’s take can best be described as a “binder theory“:  God gave us an open 3-ring binder.  As the writings which make up our Bible came down the pipe, we received them, accepted them unquestioningly, and dutifully placed them in the waiting binder.  When the last of these writings was received, the binder was closed, snapped shut, sealed, in perpetuity, for ever and ever, world without end, amen.

According to Grudem’s take, God gave Moses the binder up on Mount Sinai.  It contained the Decalogue (the 10 Commandments) and other writings that God directed Moses to produce.  Moses then later added other writings at God’s direction.  Joshua added some, then Samuel, then other Old Testament authors.  When the last of the historical writings (Esther) and the last of the prophetic writings (Haggai/Zechariah/Malachi) were received, the binder was temporarily closed.  Jesus reopened the binder and commissioned the apostles to add to it.  This they did, dutifully producing the Gospels, the Epistles, and other writings.  When the last of these was received, the binder was closed, snapped shut, sealed, in perpetuity, etc.  And such is the Bible we have today.

This theory completely and totally omits the human element in the story of how we got our Bible.  In real life, there was a bewildering variety of gospels, epistles, etc. floating around out there.  Some were recognized as more authoritative than others, and there was a sifting process by which the cream rose to the top.  But this took centuries and it wasn’t until the fourth century AD that a definitive scriptural canon was settled upon.

When Paul wrote letters to the churches to which he wrote, he was not sitting down to write books of the New Testament.  He was writing letters to real people in real churches who were dealing with real issues.  From his perspective, he had no reason whatsoever to believe that any of these would make it out of first century Rome, let alone make it into anything that could be called the New Testament.

As to the Old Testament…well, you can believe what you want to believe about the Mosaic authorship of the first five Old Testament books.  I see no reason to doubt it, but I find it well nigh impossible to believe that Moses’ finished work product was anything even remotely close to what we have in our Bibles today.

But there is a larger issue in play here, and it is this:  We in evangelicalism basically conceive of the Christian faith as something akin to a house of cards.  We hold this view of the Bible as basically having been brought down to us from heaven on golden tablets like the Book of Mormon (it is a very short–and very direct–line from what Grudem advocates to that), and we desperately–desperately–need for that view to be true.  Start tugging just a little too hard on one of the assumptions that hold it up and the whole thing comes crashing down, taking all of Christianity with it, and suddenly Jesus is no longer raised from the dead and we are all still in our sins.

I’m so over that, people.

Think back to the earliest Christians.  Think back to Paul and the apostles, to the believers who made up the early churches in which they ministered.  These people either saw Jesus rise from the dead themselves, or they knew people who had.  They went on to start a movement that would reshape history.  Because that’s what you do when you see your leader violently executed in the most horrific way imaginable, and then have breakfast with him a few days later.

You can rest assured that these people were not thinking about the (potentially) eternally catastrophic consequences of believing something as divinely inspired and part of Scripture that wasn’t supposed to be there, or of missing out on something that was.  They were not worried about some perfect and inerrant book given to us by God as if brought down from heaven on golden tablets by angels and if any part of that isn’t true then Jesus Christ is suddenly not raised from the dead and we are all still in our sins.  They had seen too much and knew too much to be taken in by the issues and concerns of us moderns.  Would that we could take a similar view of things.

Scot McKnight on Reading Romans Backwards

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge for many readers.  Reading the first twelve chapters especially, one gets the feeling that one is prepping for a masters-level systematic theology exam.  No doubt many of you have wondered:  For a beleaguered Christian community in the heart of the Roman empire, in the height of Nero’s persecutions, where in the world did they find the time and energy to sit around studying and debating the latest theories of atonement, salvation history, soteriology, etc.?  If that is you, then Scot McKnight’s new book Reading Romans Backwards may be for you.

Some money quotes:

Reading Romans forwards, beginning at 1:1 and closing the letter at 16:27, is both the best way to read Romans and its biggest problem. Reading Romans forwards often enough leads to fatigue by the time one gets to 9:1, and even more so by the time one arrives at 12:1. The impact of the fatigue is that the specific elements of the faith community in Rome as detailed in chapters 12 through 16 are ignored for how one reads chapters 1 through 8 or chapters 1 through 11. I am not proposing, then, that the right way to read Romans begins with chapter 12, but I do propose that a correction is in order and that fresh light can be thrown on chapters 1 through 11 by first taking a deep look at chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8 (since they work together in a special way).

…For decades I have read and listened to scholars and heard preachers on Romans 1-8, and one would think, after listening or reading, that those meaty chapters were written for a theological lectureship rather than to a local church or set of house churches in Rome in the first century when Nero was emperor and Paul was planning his future mission to Spain. One would think the listeners were theological savants geared up for the latest theory of atonement or soteriology or salvation-history.

…Romans is about theology, but it isn’t mere theology — it isn’t abstract theology. Romans advocates for a via vitae, both for the individual and for the community of faith in Rome.

…I have chosen to read Romans backwards in order to demonstrate that this letter is a pastoral theology…

Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: Enough

Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion:  Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.

If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.

To lead off today’s post, we are going to jump into the way-back machine and take it for a joyride.

Those of you who were in and/or around the Passion movement back in the early 00’s probably remember this song.  There are a shit ton of other worship songs which express basically the same idea:  Christ is enough for me, Jesus you are more than enough, …stuff to that effect.

Back in happier times, when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical, I ate those songs up eagerly.  But these days I’ve turned it around:  Lord, am I enough for you?

Herein lies one of my frustrations with evangelicalism and its emphasis on “getting saved” as the defining moment of one’s spiritual life:  Once you’ve prayed the prayer, signed the card, thrown the stick into the fire at youth camp, or whatever you did, supposedly you’re all good with God and that question becomes a non-starter.  Real life dictates otherwise.

For as often as we say Christ is enough for me, Jesus you are more than enough, etc.,  …when do I get to hear God speak that over me?  When do I get to hear the Lord say to me “You are worthy.  You are enough”?