Rob Bell On Justice

by Matthew Raley Rob Bell starts to make an excellent case for the justice of hell in Love Wins. But he doesn't finish it. Bell's inadequate concept of justice is the next feature of this book I think evangelicals should watch. (First two features here and here.)

Hell is hard to defend if the people who populate it are the ignorant, needy, and wounded who weren't able to check the right theological boxes. But the charge depends on sympathy. Switch perspectives on the population, and hell starts to look like the only appropriate punishment.

That's what Bell does in the middle of his chapter on hell (pp 70-73). There are kids all over Kigali, Rwanda with missing limbs, he says. "Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs." A rape victim, a 5-year-old boy whose father committed suicide, the surviving relatives of a man whose cruelty extended beyond the grave: all of these show the ongoing cost of sin.

Bell is aggressive in making this case.

So when people say they don't believe in hell and they don't like the word "sin," my first response is to ask, "Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out that their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?" (p 72)

I found myself cheering him on as I read this passage. I am a pastor, like Bell. Few have the daily, ongoing experience of evil quite like those on life's clean-up crew -- law enforcement, social workers, doctors and nurses, and pastors. The cost of sin is born day after day in family after family. And the cost mounts. True love demands payment for the sake of those who bear that cost.

But, having adjusted our perspective in this way, having raised the issue of sin's cost, and having asserted our need for this horrible word hell, Bell switches back to the perspective of the ignorant, needy, and wounded who failed to check the right boxes. Isn't it monstrous to punish them eternally? Bell asks (p 102), "Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?"

Suffering infinitely for finite sins, committed in the few years of life. Our sins, Bell assumes repeatedly in this book, are limited in scope.

Really? Our sins are finite? They are? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?

I am nowhere near granting that assumption, and I have three reasons.

1. The Bible reiterates that our sins are primarily against God, secondarily against one another (e.g. Genesis 39.7-10; Romans 1.18-32). How does Bell propose to limit the cost of sins committed against an infinite being?

2. Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let's say? It's true that I can lose sight of a sin's impact, but that doesn't mean I really know where the impact stops.

3. Human beings are linked generationally. A sin committed at one time can live on. That's a key part of the problem of racism in the United States. How can we say that Thomas Jefferson's attitude toward his slaves had a finite impact because it was committed in the few years of his own life?

Bell doesn't follow his own correct reasoning about the cost of sin to its conclusion: The cost goes on to such an extent that no human being knows the full impact of his own actions. And the real problem of justice, as the Bible lays it out, is that all have sinned.

Bell's Redeeming Deity

by Matthew Raley I am surveying features of Rob Bell's book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell's description of the nature of God.

According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people's opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is "violent" and "destructive." If this account of God were true, he says,

A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)

He goes on, calling this God "devastating," "psychologically crushing," "terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable."

Bell counters that God is love, and that God's invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God's love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.

Yet Bell's story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.

For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them "the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok," recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. "But this isn't the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, "What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny ... wasn't? What appeared to be over, isn't. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration." (p 83, emphasis original)

So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a "movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life." (p 85)

Using Bell's standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God's redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.

The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.

So let's imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: "This fire isn't forever. Your father loves you! He's inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you'll have another opportunity to love God!"

Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?

Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.

Bell's proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God's nature coherent.

Celebrity status will not exempt Bell's arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell's distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.

Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice -- standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about "a loving God" or "a just God" fall apart once we delve into specific cases. "Loving" toward whom? "Just" in whose cause?

I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God's punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his "better story" about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.

Interacting With "Love Wins"

by Matthew Raley The publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell's Jesus.

Over several posts, I'll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.

The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.

Bell's denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus' claim in John 14.6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,

What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)

Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.

The denial of doctrine's significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.

Bell's claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes "the word I have spoken" a person's judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him "a commandment -- what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life."

(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the "mechanism" that saves.)

Such bits of trivia don't matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God's truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God's story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God's story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that's bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There's "a better story" (pp 110-111).

This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.

We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.

Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.

Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible's teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.

Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.

God's Redemptive Justice

by Matthew Raley Ross Douthat made a trenchant observation in his New York Times column on Easter Sunday. "The doctrine of hell . . . assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murder can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so."

The idea of divine justice, that God renders a verdict on our choices and that a guilty verdict demands punishment, is being revised.

Many evangelicals are now saying that we must discard such old notions. They argue that God's every action is redemptive. Because the doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment in hell assumes a punitive wrath in God that has no redemptive motivation, the doctrine is inconsistent with God's nature.

Gregory Boyd (discussing annihilationism) says, "Consider that in the traditional view, the wicked are not being punished to learn something. There’s nothing remedial about their torment. Rather, God keeps them in existence for the sole purpose of having them experience pain."

Modernists made similar arguments more than a century ago. Old notions of justice as payback are barbaric, and Western civilization has outgrown such primitive ideas. Hell thus belongs to the lower rungs of humanity's evolution.

Is it the case that redemptive mercy is central to God's character, and does this characteristic invalidate the idea of hell?

Let's probe the word redemption. The Greek word is lutron, which refers to the ransom price for slaves or captives. There will be no release until the price is paid. Jesus, speaking about the key to his Lordship, says that he came to serve by giving his life as the redemption price for many (Mark 10.35-45).

Another word that expresses a similar idea is propitiation. Paul teaches that God made Christ's blood to be the "propitiation," the appeasement of God's justice, that sinners receive by faith (Romans 3.21-26). Paul also states the reason God made this appeasement in blood: "It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." That is, God's justice is demonstrated by his paying the price incurred by sin.

Redemptive mercy is indeed central to God's nature. But to call God's nature redemptive without reference to the purchase price is to talk nonsense. God does not do "remedial" sentences as a way to satisfy his justice. When he shows mercy to a sinner, he purchases the individual out of death into life.

In other words, Christ's death on the cross was redemptive because the death was entirely punitive. In God's plan the cross was not a sympathy-generating symbol or an attention-getting drama. It was the final propitiation of God's wrath. It paid the ransom.

No payment, no mercy. Full payment, full pardon.

The argument from God's mercy that many evangelicals are now using against the traditional doctrine of hell can also be used -- indeed, has been used -- to attack Christ's atonement for sin. Modernist theological liberals have long preached that the cross couldn't have been about something so primitive as payment. The cross is tragic blood-poetry to them.

I have never been impressed with modernism's treasured fantasy of cultural progress. Today's notion of remedial justice is founded on the lie that sin is not truly destructive of human life. Believing lies like this is not a sign of evolutionary refinement, but of degradation. Sin is destructive, and its deadly consequences cry out for recompense. The fact that we are all under sentence only makes the urgency of the cross more intense.

Douthat cites a contemporary story of sin, the fictional life of Tony Soprano, who rejects one opportunity after another to turn from his life of violence. "'The Sopranos' never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it."

Rob Bell's notorious question about whether Gandhi is in hell is fair enough, says Douthat. "But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?"

The Pantheon's Embrace

by Matthew Raley The Romans achieved cultural durability not through military force, but through the embrace of every god in their empire. They appropriated Greek culture wholesale, and affirmed the other traditions they conquered. While their broad piety was generous toward foreign gods, the generosity was motivated by shrewdness. If a conquered city could keep its gods, and if Rome could endow those gods with cosmopolitan nobility, then the city would be less resistant to control.

As a tool of empire, the pantheon works really well. Better than armies.

Time, the American century's literary temple, gave its blessing to Rob Bell last week in the form of a cover story. Author Jon Meacham is both a journalistic eminence (the former editor of Newsweek) and a serious observer of our religious life. To whatever spiritual trend he devotes his keyboard, there is a higher order of national attention. The controversy over Bell's teachings about hell might have remained a matter of small interest to non-evangelicals, but not anymore.

I'll write another post about Bell's book, Love Wins. I don't want to examine his doctrine based on the blast of writing for and against him. Also, I won't draw any conclusions about Bell's teachings based on Meacham's piece. The analysis belongs to Meacham, not Bell.

My interest here is in the Time artifact itself: how Time presents Bell, how Meacham frames the theological issues, and what sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals by the American pantheon.

How does Time present Bell?

He is a rock star. The photo of him is edgy. Meacham describes him as "a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following." The message in this package seems to be, "Don't mess with Bell. He's way beyond other evangelicals in style. We embrace him."

How does Meacham frame the theological issues?

Meacham treats heaven and hell seriously, being careful to say that Bell only claims to question theological rigidity, but also pointing out the implications of Bell's ideas. Of Bell's suggestion that everyone may end up in heaven, Meacham asks, "If heaven, however defined, is everyone's ultimate destination in any event, then what's the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?" Meacham accurately says that Bell is "more at home" within the "expansive liberal tradition" of Harry Emerson Fosdick.

R. Albert Mohler notes, "This may mark the first time any major media outlet has underlined the substantial theological issues at stake."

So, hat-tip to Meacham.

What sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals?

The American pantheon is opening the front door wide and proclaiming, "All ye who are weary of theological rigidity, come unto me and I will give you rest."

The invitation is pointed. Meacham's theological literacy has the effect of posing a clear choice to followers of Christ: keep your father's Christianity (with no blessing from Time), or drop that traditionalism and be sprinkled with the holy water of sophistication. Bell's Christianity is "less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient assumptions." Adopting Bell's attitude will get evangelicals the "seat at the table" they have coveted.

Further, the invitation is backed by power -- the power of perceived cultural inevitability. Meacham asks, "Is Bell's Christianity ... on an inexorable rise?" Then he quotes Bell himself: "I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air." Whatever that quote means, it at least signals that Bell is using March-of-Progress inertia to advance his ideas.

The heavily implied victory of the New stands behind Time's invitation to evangelicals. You know you can't hold out forever. Bell is a plausible enough theologian for you and for us. Let us embrace you and be done with it.

The reason Jesus never entered the Roman pantheon, of course, was that his exclusive claims invalidated all rival gods and goddesses, and threatened the durability of Rome's culture. The Jesus of the New Testament was never amenable to broad, cosmopolitan pieties. If he were turned into a statue, an abstracted symbol of Goodness, then he would have fit nicely. But 1st century Christians understood that accepting the pantheon's blessing was a surrender to imperial control, and that the real Jesus did not need the emperor's permission to rule.

This is Bell's moment. He mounts a rostrum of significant cultural authority, and what he does with this moment tells what he believes most deeply. Is Christ alone the Savior? From what exactly does He save us? The American pantheon has always been willing to embrace Jesus, so long as Jesus' followers do not deny the other gods their place.

What is Rob Bell's creed?

Book Review: Colors of God

by Matthew Raley Congregational life among evangelicals is changing across the United States and Canada. For several decades, innovators have been challenging the way churches worship, preach, and structure themselves. The new book, Colors of God: Conversations About Being the Church, is another perspective that seeks to be innovative.

The list of problems in churches is familiar.

For starters, preaching has become ineffective. What pastors talk about either seems of little consequence, or seems rooted in small-minded bombast. And that's when the preaching is comprehensible at all.

Also, community has deteriorated. Churches become busy without producing deep change in people's lives. Believers complain about the shallowness of church relationships, or about constant bickering. Most worrisome, there is a sense of unreality about interactions at church, a sense that we can't deal honestly with our failings and that church isn't safe.

Deeper, Christians are paralyzed by guilt. The weight of secret sins, the anxiety of paying lip-service to "values" without really knowing what those values entail, the general sense that God is displeased and angry, have all conspired to produce the opposite of what the Gospel promises -- joy and thankfulness.

Colors of God is written by three men who started a church called neXus in Abbotsford, BC. Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen have been influenced by the Emerging church movement in the areas of how to preach, how build community, and how to deal with the moralism of today's evangelicals.

The book's strong point is honesty. The authors are transparent about their struggles, both emotionally and intellectually, and gracious in describing how they believe churches are broken. I found many points to admire in their prescriptions. Their emphasis on God's grace, and their clear doctrinal understanding of it, are indeed the antidote for evangelicals' guilty consciences.

But I found the book unreadable.

I think the authors' decision to print, in effect, a transcript of a round-table discussion emptied the book of drive. Their representation of aspects of church life with four different colors, far from clarifying their points, required too much explanation. It seems to me that a book needs both analytical and narrative logic to propel the reader to the end. And this reader did not make it. The organization of the book seemed both fussy and murky.

And to some extent, this toying with presentational niceties as a way of expressing values is emblematic of the evangelical malaise. Pastors are forever worrying about what's wrong with "preaching." The fact that most preachers couldn't give a clear, compelling public address on any subject should figure into the analysis somewhere.

If evangelicals are going to strengthen their churches, at some point they will have to regain enduring competencies. Colors of God has some contributions to make on that score, contributions that would be brighter in a book not burdened with the pretense of being a transcript.

Your Individuality in Jesus Christ

For many Christians, individualism has become distasteful. The phrases American individualism or rugged individualism do not carry positive connotations anymore. The team player is now the epitome of godliness in churches -- the guy who doesn't make trouble. The person who goes it alone, who isn't swayed by majority opinion, who makes his or her own decisions based on inner-directed priorities is a difficult person, someone who needs to be teachable.

Which is to say, malleable.

When I was in seminary, individualism was the cultural trait blamed for the breakdown of community in local churches. People were just too independent. They didn't realize how much they needed each other.

I see similar themes among emergents, many of whom are searching for corporate identities to restore a sense of togetherness, and to discover a mission that is larger than self. For them, individualism is the beating heart of the consumer society, in which people take, use, and throw away without regard for their responsibilities.

I also hear a distaste for individualism among reformed evangelicals, who criticize a therapeutic gospel they see as too centered on the first-person singular. Self-esteem, the morphing of sin into addiction, the rationalizing of personal failings, they say, all come from a sick culture of self-love.

All of these perspectives target real problems. But they finger the wrong culprit.

In John 9, we get an extended look at a man whom Jesus heals of blindness. In almost every respect, this man is helpless: physically incapable of sight, economically destitute, socially outcast. Yet, after he is healed, we discover that he has one quality that raises him above the civil and religious rulers. He is able to stand alone. In the story, he will not yield to any form of pressure -- not to intimidation by his neighbors, nor to the status of the Pharisees, nor to the lack of support from his frightened parents, nor even to the formal punishment of excommunication.

In a new series of sermons, we will explore how Christ used this man's individuality to glorify the Father. In the process, we'll discover how individuality results from the unique way a person comes to identify with Jesus.

I believe one of the most important qualities a Christian can exhibit is uniqueness. Put another way, the greatest potential witness for the power of Christ is a Christian who refuses to conform, who does not give in to fear of what other people think. Like the man born blind, the Christian who can stand alone has the opportunity to reflect Christ's glory through a singular gem.

Churches should be nurturing individualism of this kind. It is characterized by a discerning conscience, a gut-level attachment to Christ and his power, and a willingness to stick out -- all qualities that we will unpack in this series.

To be sure, every Christian is called to the relational graces of love. The restraint of self in the interests of others is at the heart of Christian community. Those who practice self-indulgence in the name of individuality are missing the deep identification with Christ they should exhibit in their thoughts and actions.

But love is not the sum of people-pleasing flatteries.

The real culprit behind the breakdown of community, the loss of shared mission, and the growth of the self-esteem gospel is not individuality but consumerism.

The consumer measures goodness by how much can be bought for the lowest price. The Christian individualist measures goodness by how high a price Christ paid for him. The bottom line for the consumer is, "What's in it for me?" The bottom line for the Christian individualist is, "What's in it through me for Christ?" To find the safe bet, the wary consumer looks at what the majority does, but the Christian individualist looks only at what Christ does -- and sees no risk.

I don't think consumerism is individualistic at all. Consumerism is deeply conformist. If the bottom line is what's in it for me, then my assets had better be safe. And the safest thing is to be with the herd. Though we can't escape the refrain, "Be true to yourself," we see masses of people who dress the same, talk the same, listen to the same music, and drive the same cars.

For the consumer, the self to which he must be true is his demographic.

In this new series, then, we will explore the paradox that strong, healthy individuality is the expression of a life submitted to loving Christ. And I think we'll also stumble onto a greater paradox -- that strong individuality in Christ is the foundation for strong togetherness.

Tough Questions 2008: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately?

Sermon audio: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately? This question from the community invites me to do what some believe I do best: criticize my own subculture. Of course, I will answer, "Evangelicals often do not portray Jesus accurately." And, of course, I will try to specify which evangelical qualities are misleading. By merely asking this question, someone has presumed a negative answer.

There is a larger issue. What attitude should we have toward the deepening problems of evangelical churches?

The criticisms from emergents that American evangelicals are Christianized consumers, that they lack authentic community, that their worship is stilted, and that they are not on the side of the poor all have merit. The doctrinal criticisms from the reformed movement (MacArthur, Piper, et al.) rightly indict the lack of biblical integrity among many evangelicals. Even the criticisms that the church growth movement has made over the past thirty years -- that churches are not reaching non-Christians -- are accurate. (The criticisms just happen to be accurate of the church growth movement itself, as well.)

Put all of these criticisms together, and the picture is dire. A movement that is not growing, not intellectually coherent, and not engaged with other cultures is a movement near death.

James Stockdale, one of the most famous American POWs in North Vietnam, has been used as an example of how to survive dire situations by business author Jim Collins. (The book is Good To Great.) What kind of man did not survive the POW experience? Stockdale said the optimist, the man who was sure he'd be home by Christmas, but whose steadily retreating target dates for release were never kept. The positive thinkers died.

The survivors, said Stockdale, had two things. They had faith that they would survive, and discipline to confront the brutal facts of their environment. Collins tagged this the "Stockdale paradox," the irony that unstinting honesty about dire situations can actually bolster the faith one needs to survive.

I want to see evangelicals eschew optimism about their predicament.

Let's take, as an example, their recent explosion of support for Gov. Sarah Palin. Personally, I like her. She gives a great speech. I admire her decision not to abort her baby boy, and I respect the way she and her husband have handled the appalling media abuse of their 17-year-old daughter. I think the clash of the classes her nomination has provoked is good old-fashioned political fun.

But the adulation of her by evangelicals is in one important respect delusional. She will not change Washington from the vice president's mansion -- populists to the contrary. She will not change American culture. She will not even change the culture of evangelical churches -- though she reflects and represents them well. Her presence on the national stage simply does not address the spiritual issues we face.

We won't be freed from the dire evangelical crisis by Christmas.

A brutal honesty about our future says:

  1. Our compromise with America's consumer society has been a disaster. Consumerism will have to be rooted out of our churches soul by soul.
  2. Our transformation of churches into entertainment platforms has been a disaster. Devout worship of the living God will have to be rediscovered soul by soul.
  3. Our financial selfishness will have to be corrected by the good hand of God soul by soul, until we are once again the people who stand with the poor.
  4. Our doctrinal ignorance and folly has turned our brains to mud. Knowledge of the truth will have to be taught soul by soul.
  5. Our fear of the cultures around us, and our refusal to interact meaningfully with them -- that is, interact beyond marketing ploys -- has left us unable to articulate the gospel in our own time. Soul by soul, we will have to rebuild a vigorous way of life and witness in hostile territory.

I believe that, once we are honest about these things, we will have ground for a strong faith that Christianity will survive and prosper in the future. The moment we look at these five realities, harsh though they are, we realize that the tool for teaching soul by soul is everywhere in this country: the local church. The body of Christ in its many meetings has been doing this job for centuries. We just need to start doing the job again.

Our ultimate ground for faith is our Lord and his plan. As we follow him afresh, Jesus is well able to portray himself accurately in his churches.

Intellectual Sentimentality and the Tour

A lot of people I know are revising their understanding of the gospel. I worry about those who aren't. Much of what we learn about Christ comes from the communities in which we worship and the traditions of interpretation those communities embody. Though we say we learn truth from the Bible alone, our actual doctrines often come from other human beings, and this way of learning is not necessarily wrong.

But over time, many believers can't sustain the assumptions they inherit. I know former charismatics who question the mysticism they grew up with, former Baptists who bristle at the legalism of their parents, and former megachurch attenders who have grown weary of the showmanship they used to admire. Such believers find their assumptions challenged by spiritual failures, family struggles, and church conflicts. They either revise their understanding of the gospel or they give up on Christianity.

These crises are often healthy. No community of believers has everything solved, and learning your community's shortcomings can help you grow in Christ. We need to be disillusioned now and then.

But there's potential for a wild goose chase.

Believers can search endlessly for the solution to The Problem With Christians Today, taking a tour of various communities. The Baptist thumbs through Calvin, perhaps, to discover grace, but wonders if he can go as far as infant baptism. The megachurch refugee knocks on doors until she finds a human-proportioned body of believers. But that body proves not be as caring as she had hoped.

I don't think we were designed for rootless spirituality. Living on tour can make one's disillusionment permanent.

Brian McLaren records his own tour through communities of faith in a chapter of A Generous Orthodoxy called, "The Seven Jesuses I Have Known" (pp 43-89). He shows how Jesus is portrayed by different traditions -- which parts of Jesus' ministry they emphasize, which teachings they embrace, which they overlook.

"The Conservative Protestant Jesus" came to die, says McLaren, to save people from hell. But that's pretty much it. "The Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus" is "up close, present, and dramatically involved in daily life," but tends to make people proud of their advancement in spiritual experience. "The Roman Catholic Jesus" rises from the dead, and so defeats everything associated with death.

McLaren says that by his mid-20s, he had incorporated all three of these views into his understanding of Jesus. He believed that "each was a new facet, a new dimension, of the Jesus I had met as a child." He proceeds through the visions of the eastern orthodox, the liberal protestants, the anabaptists, and the revolutionaries. He talks persuasively about these communities because he's interacted with each of them directly.

But the only thing McLaren seems to have taken from his tour are snapshots. His criticisms of the Jesus of this or that tradition are mostly oversimplifications (the evangelical Jesus only dies). Even when he praises a tradition, his comments are too often trite and sentimentalized. For instance: "If the Evangelical Jesus saves by dying, the Pentecostal Jesus by sending his Spirit, and the Catholic Jesus by rising from death, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus saves simply by being born, by showing up, by coming among us."

That's like a Hallmark card from Constantinople. Whatever credibility McLaren might gain by his generosity, he loses by his dilettantism. His breezy commendations of the good in each tradition imply that he has outgrown all traditions.

Our communities can teach good lessons too well. We can stop learning, and the truths we stand upon can make us lame. Other traditions within Christianity serve to remind us that the Bible has unfamiliar passages just as worthy of our devotion as the familiar ones.

But I fear McLaren doesn't make this kind of point at all.

If orthodoxy is ultimately unknowable and all traditions merely approximate what lies unreachable in God's mind, then the tour of traditions is a revelation of truth in itself. In fact, McLaren seems to honor a beatific vision conceived by intellectual sentimentality, the abstracted life. The true human being has no constraints on his mind, no prejudices, no blinders, no culture. He is free. He embraces all perspectives. He has risen above partisanship and has attained the nirvana of the holistic worldview.

This vision of life without intellectual limits is beguiling. But like all sentimental pets, it doesn't actually exist. We need our roots, constraints and all.

McLaren the Intellectual Defines Orthodoxy

Intellectuals thrive on complexity. They regard certainty and simplicity as signs of immaturity, and they have some good reasons. Take Brian McLaren's critique of mainstream evangelicalism. McLaren has identified an attitude that is a hindrance to everything from effective persuasion to loving fellowship. The attitude is the us v. them, chip-on-the-shoulder, we're-right-they're-wrong impatience with which evangelicals tend to deal with the wide surrounding world. From his writings, one gathers that McLaren has had enough.

The problem with evangelical pomposity is that it has preempted learning. If we're right and they're wrong, then all we have to do is stay right. Tell the unbelievers one more time why their views on abortion, education, government, and values are heinous. Our fidelity to the truth can reduce to repeated talking points -- say it again, this time with feeling! -- a tactic that shuts out feedback and degrades relationships to mere exchanges of rhetorical bullets.

McLaren wants to change this attitude, and he is right. I have devoted many posts to the cultural backwater that is evangelical populism, where applications of truth are stagnant.

But McLaren's desire for greater openness seems to have led him to oversimplifications of his own, and ultimately to a redefinition of truth itself. The book is, of course, A Generous Orthodoxy.

His now-famous modification of orthodoxy with generous suggests that orthodoxy by itself is petty. When he comes to defining what orthodoxy is, McLaren starts this way (p 28): "For most people, orthodoxy means right thinking or right opinions, or in other words, ‘what we think,' as opposed to ‘what they think.'" For McLaren, orthodoxy tends to be petty because most people view it in adversarial terms.

The sentence is an early bit of slippage. I know many self-satisfied Christians who like few things better than to hear the us v. them story again and call it Christianity. But their pettiness does not determine what orthodoxy is. McLaren is building up to his redefinition by implying a simple choice between orthodoxy alone (petty) and orthodoxy plus generosity (loving).

His alternative definition comes in the next sentence. "In contrast, orthodoxy in this book may mean something like ‘what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.'" The truth is beyond our reach, in God's mind, and the various factions of human spirituality each have pieces of it. To follow orthodoxy, according to this definition, is to be generous to the other factions and to learn from them.

Orthodoxy may mean that. It may mean something like that. In this book.

The care with which McLaren poses as tentative and playful is necessary to disguise the enormity of what he puts over in that definition. Orthodoxy is inaccessible. It's "what God knows." This is a romanticist punt, even transcendentalist. Emerson could've written it, irony and all. Intellectuals may feed on such continually evolving knowledge, but the gruel is too thin for simple believers.

Actual Christian orthodoxy teaches that God himself is incomprehensible, but that he has given us a revelation of his nature and will by which he is knowable. Orthodoxy is not in God's mind. It's in his Word, both written and incarnate. It's accessible. The distinction between the living God and the doctrines about him --the distinction that ought to keep us humble -- already thrives where theology is a scholarly discipline rather than a grass-roots rallying point.

But I just ran smack into another sentence closing McLaren's paragraph on orthodoxy. McLaren says, "Most people are too serious, knowledgeable, and busy for such an unorthodox definition of orthodoxy." So he makes an intriguing definition tentatively and then bluffs his way out of being examined, an escape-hatch from accountability that he seems to open pretty often.

The definition I've analyzed comes in a chapter titled, "For Mature Audiences Only." How would McLaren define mature? I'll venture a definition for him: "For most people, maturity means being accountable for what you say. In contrast, maturity in this book may mean something like being comfortable with irony."

I hope we can learn and grow as human beings without intellectual games.

Emergent Intellectuals and Their News From Nowhere

Intellectualism has long said, to coin a phrase, "Everything must change." Will emergent intellectuals be any different from the utopians of the past? Not so far. Their knowledge seems enslaved to ideology: Evil is built into our social structures. Racism is systemic. Economic inequality is institutional. War is the result of the military industrial complex. Poverty in the developing world is the legacy of imperialism, imposed first by Western colonial powers and then by cold war superpowers. So, if we're serious about addressing all these problems, the world has to be reorganized.

Fortunately, this is now possible.

A new generation has outgrown the confines of the Enlightenment and is emerging into postmodernity. We no longer think in outmoded ways. We're no longer shackled by the prejudices of ye olde puritanism, or the bigotry of Western thought, or the obsession with proving others wrong. We know that we can change everything because we have what previous generations lacked: dialogue about theoretical models.

And all God's people said, "Yes we can!"

Utopianism of this kind has a pretty well-documented history. Michael Burleigh's recent book about the decline of Christendom, Earthly Powers (HarperCollins, 2005), narrates how political schemes for restructuring society gained religious authority. Among the vast collection of intellectuals Burleigh sketches is Auguste Comte (pp 229-230):

One of the fathers of modern social "science", who in 1839 coined the term "sociology", Comte sought to establish the philosophical basis for the sciences and for the scientific ordering and reform of society, a formula calculated to appeal to the right as well as the left. . . . [Comte's] Positivism was supposed to be a third way between the outmoded theologically grounded world of the ancien regime and an abstract, critical rationalism that had become anarchic and incapable of creating anything.

Burleigh continues:

The essence of his Religion of Humanity was to redirect mankind's spiritual energies away from the transcendental and towards the creation of a happier and more moral life here on earth through the worship of the best in man himself.

The idea that science must direct cultural change led to an array of horrors.

Burleigh narrates the course from Saint-Simon and Comte, among others, to the totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century. Turning to older scholars, Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, showed the many responses of Anglo-American thinkers to the destruction of culture by utilitarian reformers. In The Road To Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek argued that centrally planned economies lead to tyranny. Jane Jacobs documented the dehumanizing impact of urban renewal dogma in The Death and Life of Great of American Cities. Paul Johnson scandalized the chattering classes with his book Intellectuals, which did the extreme disfavor of comparing the ideals of famous thinkers with their actual behavior.

And the emergents?

Infatuation with causes on the left is deepening, especially among younger evangelicals. It is now God's work to protest the war in Iraq, to bring about world peace, to end poverty all over the world, and to advocate environmental regulations. A renewed identification of the gospel with social justice can be heard in many churches, as well as impatience with the idea that salvation is for heaven and not for this world.

I am not saying that emergents are simply latter-day versions of Comte. But I will say that many of them are intellectuals in the old style. Their obsessive theorizing about the course of history and their absorption with grand political change are characteristic of alienated model-mongers. I see two problems with their leftward tilt, just as I see other problems with populist conservatism among evangelicals.

1. The evils of this world are not systemic, but spiritual. Reorganize, restructure, reform all you want, but the power of wickedness will merely shift. A culture is only transformed as the individuals who live in it are reborn in Christ. The reason evangelicals are failing spiritually in America is not that they have ignored progressive political causes, but that they have ignored the Holy Spirit's call to their own souls.

2. Evangelical pastors should not surrender their authority to intellectuals. Every generation since the French Revolution has seen vicars of "progress" emerge. These parsons, whom Malcolm Muggeridge used to call "tame clergymen," bow from their pulpits to the greater authority of Comte's social sciences, giving their benediction to whatever totalist model has favor this year, whether it's emissions caps or a UN war crimes tribunal. A pastor's authority is in his fidelity to the Bible, not to the consensus at Davos.

The linkage between the Kingdom of Christ and earthly power is an old, old folly. If emergents are unable to shake the euphoria of knowing how to change everything, they will end in the enclaves of bitterness, and nothing will have changed.

A 1989 Bull Session and Intellectualism

One night during my first year of college, I was riding with some fellow believers, all from the same InterVarsity group at Willamette University, and we were talking about the megachurch we attended. Willamette is a secular liberal arts school (its historical connection to Methodism is now purely notional). It's the oldest on the left coast, and has the ivy of the Ivy League without the pedigree. It is not the preserve of the wealthy, necessarily, but let's just say I was only there because of a scholarship. And, at that time, Willamette had little interaction with the surrounding community of Salem, Oregon.

The megachurch we all attended had a dynamic preacher and up-tempo music. It was known as a relatively wealthy church, the cars in the parking lots being a major indicator. Because of its youth group and extensive children's ministry, it was also the place in town for families, especially white ones.

My friends and I went there for the preacher, who was smart, likable, and passionate. But the wealth of the congregation, or maybe the display of it, was somewhat embarrassing. And the music was irritating. In all, my friends in the car were conflicted about the church, frustrated with it.

At last, one guy said, "It's just so middle class!" The rest laughed bitterly.

I was taken aback by the hostility in his voice, and by the others' identification with it. Even though I felt the same frustrations with that church as the others, I couldn't understand the contempt they were expressing for being bourgeois. It hadn't occurred to me to think of myself as having risen beyond my origins. My thought was, "All of you are middle class."

In that year of 1989, there wasn't a name for young evangelicals who went to liberal arts schools, took books, cinema, and ideas seriously, and explored such exotica as liberation theology. There wasn't a name for graduates who followed their passion for the poor into work with Habitat For Humanity. There wasn't enough momentum for politically liberal evangelicals at the start of Reagan's third term to gain a label. Nor was the suburban megachurch the object of scorn that it is now.

But today my friends would be called emergents.

I have spent time on this blog exploring the barren flats of evangelical populism. Now it is time to take a look at the swamp of evangelical intellectualism.

I should be clear about my use of the term. I'm not using intellectual as a synonym for scholar. A scholar is removed from ordinary life and work to pursue an academic discipline. An intellectual is not so much removed from ordinary life as disaffected from it. He is embittered by the lives other people lead, contemptuous of their lack of sophistication, and resentful of their lack of attention to his accomplishments. The intellectual class sees itself as society's critic, wrote Robert Bork in 1996 (Slouching Toward Gomorrah, p 83):

Its members are generally critical of, if not actively hostile to, bourgeois society and culture. They are, moreover, susceptible to utopian fantasies.

Not all farmers are populists. So, too, not all scholars are intellectuals in the sense I am describing. And, truth be told, very few intellectuals are scholars. Most are merely glib with general knowledge.

Think Al Gore. Tortured, complicated, afflicted by a sensitive conscience -- and proud of all three. He is not trained deeply in any academic field. He studies science not for knowledge but for advocacy. His career trajectory is typical of an intellectual: liberal arts training, journalism, politics. His intellectualism, at least in many people's eyes, redeems him from grubbiness. He's more than an advocate, more than a politician, because he's about ideas.

Some of intellectualism's cultural characteristics:

1. Urban, not rural.

2. Scornful of business and money. Money is corrupt, and the businesspeople who pursue it are all animated by greed -- all of them.

3. Contemptuous of patrimony. Wherever an intellectual came from, whatever class or location or religion, that is the seat of hypocrisy and sick living.

4. Patronizing toward the middle class. All those poor, narrow people who just work, work, work in their office cubicles and then go to Applebees, all those parents with massive strollers and screaming children, who've never even met a poor person, who've never gone to Guatemala, who only care about money and their 401Ks and the prohibitive cost of filling their SUVs ...

5. Able to evoke positive emotions only with abstractions. Obama.

I see all of these characteristics among emergents. Now, the emergent phenomenon is about many things -- theology, history, abuse by authority figures. Emergents target many legitimate evils: consumerism, a mistaken identification of Christ with the Republican party, the neglect of the arts. Many stories are coming together to make the emergent stream. But it's intellectualism that I am finding over and over again. Many emergents are about class.

Here's a funny thing. Both evangelical populism and intellectualism, even though they have the opposite cultural characteristics, lead us to the same place: grievance. I doubt that resentment is going to advance the Kingdom of Christ, whether it comes from self-satisfied middle class Americans or self-hating middle class Americans. So why do so many evangelicals seem to seethe with it?

My friend's outburst that night in 1989 showed me early signs of the splintering of evangelicalism, and nearly twenty years later I'm still trying to figure out what it means.

Graham Greene and the Sinner's Prayer

I'll put one of my fears out there: I fear that, week after week, we pastors describe an experience of conversion that no one has. The Authorized Conversion happens when someone "asks Jesus into his heart." The act of praying this prayer, evangelicals have taught, transfers a person from darkness to light. It is the moment of salvation. Preaching drives toward it, and testimonies feature it. When we ask each other how we "got saved," we are asking about the circumstances that led to praying the prayer. We count the people who pray it, and we tell them to write the date and the hour in their Bibles.

But in my own experience, praying the sinner's prayer was only one step in my salvation -- a defining step, a step that summed up what the Lord had been doing in my five-year-old soul, but not decisive. As I remember growing up, I can see many points that were clearer, more specific. There was a day in the fifth grade, for instance, when I was in despair because I had no friends. At recess, I retreated to a far corner of the schoolyard to pray, and found friendship from Jesus.

For me, salvation is the fruit of many defining experiences and decisions, not one. And we seem to induce spiritual lethargy when we teach people to rely on a single prayer.

In high school, I saw how people went forward for tearful prayers, but almost never showed any change later. I constantly meet Christians who, in an effort to know that they're saved, have repeated the sinner's prayer so many times they've lost count. Like many of my generation, I'm suspicious of conversion numbers, even cynical that anything good comes of guiding more people through the steps. Indeed, evangelical doubt over the sinner's prayer seems to be a primary cause of the movement's splintering. Emergents and Calvinists both put the altar call at the top of their lists of "what's wrong with us."

There are modern Christian movements that have connected more vigorously with people's experiences.

Graham Greene wrote a novel decades ago called, The End of the Affair. He told the story of an adulterous woman whom God lures out of sexual immorality. It was a story that reflected not just Greene's experience, but the experience of many English contemporaries -- Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, and C. S. Lewis being only the most prominent.

While I might have problems with Greene's theology, there is no question that literature like his shows how conversion happens in post-Christian culture far better than anything evangelicals have written.

Evangelicals need to make a lot of changes. They need to separate their political and cultural resentments from their proclamation of the gospel. They need a revival of the arts so that they can nurture people emotionally with truth. They need to understand the real characteristics of the people in their churches.

But, fundamentally, evangelicals need to rearticulate what conversion is.

The conversions I see are slow. There's the young woman who attended church in Orland for three years before startling her friends by announcing that she believed in Jesus. She told me she found Christ not by being miserable, but by being happy -- and realizing that it wasn't enough. Then there's the older man who had "prayed the prayer" decades ago, but who only found assurance of salvation when he went camping alone last summer to seek the Lord.

So one of my goals is to describe the conversion experience that people actually have: the slow, step-by-step acquisition of an art under the direction of the Master. Real Christians fumble with faith, making crude brush strokes and mixing their paints poorly. But the Master keeps instructing and the apprentice keeps fumbling. Sometimes the apprentice slips into the zone with his faith, but he slips out again. The Master just keeps him painting, painting, painting, until one day the apprentice realizes that his faith lives.

To Revitalize Evangelical Culture

If populism has left evangelicals resentful and suspicious of "elites," and complacent in a sentimentalized Christianity, how can evangelical leaders restore their movement's cultural vitality? Begin with a basic shift. Evangelical leaders need to rediscover the foundation of their authority.

I've noticed that a person with authority has a right to be heeded, to receive deference. For example, let's say we have a bull session about how evangelism really ought to be done, and we each proclaim our opinions, together with all the reasons why we're right. But when Billy Graham ambles over to the sofa and puts up his boots on the coffee table, we sincerely defer. We don't repent of our opinions when he starts to talk. We don't surrender unconditionally to whatever he says. But we do adjust our points of view to incorporate his.

I'm saying that a person with authority has a right to this deference. If someone in our bull session blows off Billy Graham, we disapprove because we feel that respect is something Graham is owed. The right to be heeded is powerful. If deference is not his right, then what he's got isn't authority.

I figure there are lots of possible foundations for authority. There's authority founded on skill: Billy Graham has a right to our deference on matters of evangelism because he's unusually competent. There's also authority founded on charisma: Graham has a unique relational wisdom that has won over vast audiences for decades.

Some foundations for authority crumble, and cannot be rebuilt for an age. In the days when Graham first preached, he had authority simply because he was a pastor. Almost everybody deferred to a pastor for the sake of respectability. It didn't matter whether the pastor's congregation was fifty or five hundred: they adjusted their points of view to incorporate his. But this social authority deteriorated, and by the 1970s any pastor who depended on it was feeling vulnerable.

Other foundations for authority are perverse, like popularity. A celebrity will get deference for a while just because masses of people hang on his words. But adoring crowds can turn into mobs. Graham has had the authority of popularity, and has also felt the sting of disapprobation, as when he visited the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Since he did not build his ministry on his popularity, his stature eventually outgrew the setbacks.

Evangelical leaders, for the most part, have been running scared because of the loss of their social authority. They have watched American culture scoff at the stock character of the pastor, mocking his impotence in the face of cultural changes. And they have been retreating from any hint of that old authority in their leadership, trying instead to teach, evangelize, and organize on the basis of popularity or skill or charisma.

Populism, with its easy emotionalism, has become the most common way evangelical leaders gain a right to be heeded. They hoist an apparently strong banner that rallies the troops -- and it works for a while. But this cynicism has nauseated so many believers that the search is on for community without authority -- an egalitarian delusion now tempting emergents.

I believe evangelicalism will not regain vitality until its leaders rediscover their authority's foundation. There has to be a reason for believers to listen to them, to defer to them. And subcultures outside of evangelicalism must see that reason, or they will not pay the gospel any heed.

In this connection, it's worth noting that Billy Graham (no populist by my definition) had many kinds of authority, but only depended on one kind: the coherence of his character with the Bible. That is, the force of biblical authority exerted itself through Graham's personal submission. More than anything else, this biblical integrity is what gained him the right to be heeded.

Next week, the technical specifications for gaining that authority.

The Fear of Cultural Interaction

The old pastors like Joe Wiens, who fought modernist liberalism from a rural church in Montana, were either retiring or dying by the time I came into ministry. But I got a sense of who they were and what they experienced. Decades ago, Joe discovered that his denomination was sending missionaries around the world who didn't believe in the inerrancy of scripture, in the deity of Christ, or that Christ's death literally paid for sin. Joe was the mildest man you could meet, full of prayer and charity. But these discoveries were the beginning of the end.

He led his church out of the denomination.

This was not just an isolated misunderstanding. It was an experience repeated across the country, especially from the 1920s through the 1940s. Such conflicts may have been more decisive in casting the fundamentalist mindset than the rise of Darwinism. The average Christian witnessed a betrayal of his core principals not by unbelievers, but by hierarchies of the churches. Many took the lesson that interaction with the larger culture -- with its entertainment, education, and practices -- was a sure way to be unfaithful to the Bible.

The problem of how to influence the world without being poisoned by worldliness is one that evangelicals have not solved.

Fundamentalists have taught that believers must disavow not only outright sins, but also practices that lead to sin. Just this evening, I read a sermon outline from the pastor of a thriving suburban church in which he said that dancing, alcohol consumption, and movies were "slippery slopes," and called for "complete abstinence." Last week, Dale Fincher wrote about an incident at Cedarville that illustrates this mindset here. The university canceled an appearance by Shane Claiborne because Claiborne was seen as Emergent. Let one of their kind in, and what's next?

Fincher wrote that "anyone who is trying to live the good news of Jesus that has a different texture to mission than Christian fundamentalism will be suspect. There's little way around it. If you don't use the typical accepted vocabulary, then expect suspicion. I've been at the brunt of it myself with no good Biblical reason, but that I just don't fit the sub-culture."

In trying to preserve an alternative culture to mainstream America, fundamentalism kept out worldliness of a kind, but only by chaining itself to authoritarianism.

Broader evangelicals take a different view of interacting with the world. They have said that the only things wrong with non-Christian songs, movies, and educational institutions were the messages. We could use pop music and movies if we filled them with godly themes. So evangelicals have created an alternative universe of media, schools, and organizations devoted to copying the styles of secular offerings while delivering safe content.

I believe the effect on evangelical churches has been deadly. In the mimicry of secular pop culture, all the worst characteristics of American consumerism have been injected into the veins of corporate worship -- the passivity of the audience, the relentless me-focus, the suffocating sentimentality. And the mimicry has deprived evangelicals of the best aspects of pop culture: the creativity that takes art from the street and a shows it to a broader audience. Mimicry simply does not inspire.

When I say this result is deadly, I'm choosing my word carefully.

Evangelicalism does not present itself as a counterculture. It offers no contrast to the ways of vanilla suburbia, but insists that the blessings of Christ can be enjoyed without any sacrifices. Emergents are absolutely right in criticizing these aspects of evangelical culture, and in searching for deeper bonds. (See Len at NextReformation on a move toward missional orders here.) We are seeing the beginnings of a flight from the corpse of Christianity at the mall.

Both the fundamentalist and evangelical approaches seem to have had the same result. Believers have been taught only to shun the outside world, not to interact with it wisely.

For fundies, the shunning is literal. Evangelicals, for their part, try to shun with a smile, offering substitutes that taste just like the real thing. But a young believer stepping onto a college campus for the first time still has no idea how to present herself, still does not know how to articulate where she comes from, still cannot take what she has inherited and build a life in hostile territory. She knows that her cultural upbringing is simply not adequate.

We have to interact with the world without being poisoned by worldliness. This problem will not go away. So what can we do?

There are emergents who display biblical Christianity among people hostile to the gospel. They study and pray deeply, and they have found ways to communicate truth openly. These emergents don't need lectures on staying committed to God's word; they're living it.

There are conservative evangelicals -- even fundamentalists -- who also display biblical Christianity among people hostile to the gospel. They know how to interact with homosexuals, environmentalists, new agers of all stripes. They don't need lectures about openness; they're living it.

These two groups don't seem to agree right now. But if the majorities in the two groups can view each other outside the lenses of past antagonisms, they will start to talk. Their disagreements will become more specific, and their fellowship more broad.

Joe Wiens was no fighting fundy. He supported Billy Graham crusades from the early days when Billy would stop on the highway and pray with the local pastors -- pastors from many traditions. Joe knew how to interact with and learn from other Christians. He died a man of peace, not a man of bitterness.

By losing the fear of interacting with each other, even in disagreement, we may learn how to show wisdom to the world.

The Splintering of Evangelicalism is Noisy

Here are two blogs that offer help for those trying to understand current evangelical divisions, and another blog that offers . . . well . . . Let's accentuate the positive.

Kingdomgrace takes up the question What is ministry? here, here, and here. Her gift is for spotting the right question, inviting comment, and summarizing the results. In this case, she sees that many evangelicals view the concept of ministry differently -- some as a profession, others as a way of life. She lays the differences on the table and lets people talk about them. When she infuses controversy into the discussion, she restores focus instead of inciting reaction. She is, in other words, a leader who helps a group get smarter.

I believe Spirit-led people will follow leaders like her.

Jollyblogger also offers help, commenting on the merchandising of Jesus here and here. Jollyblogger is onto the fact that marketing has worn out its welcome with the young. I think the division between generations of evangelicals is partly a result of older generations' love for the extravaganzas and bombast of the TV aesthetic. The young aren't buying.

The divisions are treated in a measured way at Jollyblogger, and he concludes that "the critics of the franchise church are spot on - this is an argument against the commodification of the faith and an argument to engage people as people, not prospects and to engage them as human beings, not as a part of an assembly line process."

Again, I think Jollyblogger is the type of leader Spirit-led people will heed.

The clashes of perspective shown in these posts help us understand why evangelicals are splintering. Many no longer hold common definitions of such basic concepts as kingdom work, compromise with the world, and evangelism. What is considered credible among some evangelicals, like marketing, is considered pathetic among others. The disagreements are often grave.

Which is why following these discussions can put a knot in your gut. Can we rebuild an evangelical consensus on these issues? If we're unclear on such basic matters, how can we form vibrant communities?

And then you read Josh Brown here.

Or rather, you read him if you can stomach his replacement of argumentation with scatology. Brown wants to deal with misconceptions about emergents, and deal with them he does. With flamethrowers. Brown not only blasts critics of emergents, but insults anyone who dares even pose questions in the comments.

The Lord has blessed evangelicals with an emergent conversation that is larger than Brown's rhetoric. If he really did speak for emergents, the prospects for rebuilding an evangelical consensus would be nil. But, while I wonder whether he speaks for Emergent Village, I can't believe emergents will listen too long to his rantings.

I believe evangelicals can become members of one another in Christ again -- in a way that is not merely notional but practical. I believe they not only can, but they will. The leaders are out there.

This joining will not take place, however, as a result of blogs, books, or conferences. It will not be organized by yet another national movement. It will grow as individual Christians commit to each other in local churches -- churches they recognize to be faulty. Their joining will come at the price of their complaints. Eventually, they will tire of nursing their wounds. They'll ignore the abstractions of zealots and seek strength from emotions other than anger. They will establish bonds with those communities that teach the Bible, and strive to live in the power of the risen Christ.

They will do this because they have the Holy Spirit, who sovereignly nourishes the body of Christ (Ephesians 4.1-6). The splintering of evangelicalism may be noisy, but it will prove temporary.

The Core of Abusive Authority

I am dismayed to meet so many people who have felt abused by their church leaders. I regularly hear stories of pastors who lie, steal, manipulate, and commit sexual immorality, and the stream is too steady for me to dismiss the stories as slanders from a disgruntled few. Why is this kind of abuse so common?

The emergent conversation is tackling this question, but not, I think, from the right point of view. A leitmotif among emergents is the pompous preacher, the angry know-it-all who uses the Bible to control people. By heavy implication, those who practice biblical exposition are guilty of being Pharisaical and power-hungry.

This man, many seem to be saying, is the problem. The preacher has too strong a tendency to abuse people. He needs to be cut down to size.

To a large extent, I agree. But how do we shrink him?

I believe that the only way a pastor can avoid abusing his people is to submit himself to the authority of scripture. The reason abuse is so common in churches is not that biblical exposition is too prominent, but that the Bible has been systematically ignored in churches -- honored on leaders' lips but not in their hearts.

I try to implement several principles to constrain my heart as a leader.

  • Let the text pick the topics. I often assume that I know "what my people need," but I really don't know. It's all too easy for my favorite practical issue, or my favorite doctrinal focus, to become "what my people need." To undermine my assumptions, I try to work in a strict exegetical fashion -- deriving topics from passages, not seeking passages for topics. For instance, if I pick the topic, "Jesus Provides For Our Needs," I might use the feeding of the 5,000 from Mark 6.33-44. But what would the topic be if I let Mark choose?
  • Preach texts, not points. Too much of what passes for application today is actually generalization. For instance, the preacher goes from the feeding of the 5,000 to the sweeping principle, "Jesus provides." He then has to "illustrate" the principle, using "real life examples," because he's stated it too broadly. But the miracle is already a real life example. Mark was specific: the disciples were hardening in unbelief, and Jesus repeatedly confronted them (Mark 6.51-52). Preach Mark's text, and listeners will appreciate how Jesus teaches us to depend on him.
  • Reason together. If I'm going to declare that Jesus teaches us to depend on him, I have to show not just that my declaration is consistent with Mark 6, but that the teaching is Mark's burden -- that it is Mark's point. Showing that crucial fact requires reasoning. It requires some analysis. It requires time. The tricks of salesmanship are simply not up to the task.

Sticking to these principles helps drain my preaching of willfulness. The principles bend me back into submission to the scriptures.

It is not a surprise that abusive leadership has followed the decline of biblical exposition. If leaders set the agenda for their churches, if leaders allow themselves the privilege of sloganeering rather than reasoning, if leaders feel they can lard their sermons with stories and call it being practical, then the leaders have freed themselves from accountability to God's word. Tyranny will follow.

The core of abusive authority is lawlessness in the leader's soul.

Abuse By Negligence

The emergent conversation often returns to the theme of churches' abuse of souls. In a post earlier this week, Len at NextReformation gave me another angle on soul-abuse, namely that the damage can come not only from aggression but also from neglect. Soul-abuse is repeatedly injuring a person's heart-and-mind -- doing so without seeking forgiveness or showing repentance, and while substituting slogans for integrity. Betrayal, guilt manipulation, and over-reach of spiritual authority are common types of soul-abuse.

The phrase is my expression for what many people feel they've experienced in churches. I think the phrase is problematic. Soul-abuse seems to want membership in the victimization lexicon, and that's a major turn-off for me. Individuals are responsible for their souls, including their reactions to injury. But, unfortunate connotations aside, I think the phrase is accurate. Many churches are injuring people's souls, injuring them repeatedly, and are not doing anything to repent.

Anger at the aggressive forms of this abuse abounds. A substantial proportion of American believers have had enough of churches run as businesses, of scandalous pastoral behavior, and of manipulative fundraising. Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna seems to tap into this anger, and has been much debated around the web over the last fortnight. (A hilariously negative review here; a judiciously positive review here.) My novel Fallen was written to dramatize crimes that have become all too common.

But soul-abuse by negligence is harder to pin down. Which brings us back to Len at NextReformation.

He comments that "we don't 'do fathering' very well." Len quotes Paul Fromont about churches' lack of parenting skills. "They’re not all that good at nourishing, accompanying, encouraging, and resourcing growth and increasing levels of Christian maturity." Len suggests that "the system [of churches] became rational more than relational and involved authority in offices rather than connecting it to wisdom."

I think Len is right. Many churches have become malls rather than gatherings, and the work of discipleship has tended to be done in classrooms. The results I have seen are dismal: busy people yearning to know who they are, unable to find a sense of kinship.

Churches used to operate in strong organic systems -- families, schools, volunteer associations, neighborhoods, charities, government. Local cultures in America used to be vibrant -- if far from perfect -- which meant that the impact of fathering was felt everywhere. A child not only had parents, but vigilant neighbors and teachers who reinforced shared values. The role of churches was to focus the spiritual priorities of people who already knew their own identities.

But in most of the nation now, localities are cultural wastelands of anonymity.

Churches, in my view, have done worse than ignore relationships. They have ignored fathering relationships -- the authoritative bonds that pass on ways of life and provide continuity from one generation to the next. Every church needs a core of strong, loving men -- every church. But few have such a core. We can't teach the Christian life in a class. Information is only helpful in the context of strong fathers who model application.

If this is true, then the most serious soul-abuse has been that of neglect. Churches have not built godly men, and as a result most new believers have not had models. Churches have injured people's hearts-and-minds by a failure to nurture.

This is certainly a criticism of the "religious activity" model of discipleship favored by traditional churches. But I don't see emergents making any progress on this issue either. Listening to the hurting is good and right. So is a missional approach to church structure and organization. Spiritual formation is a needed emphasis.

But, ultimately, loving fathers confront and do not yield. Is there an emergent model for this?

The Conundrum of Authority

Eight women in Florida have given sworn depositions charging that a megachurch pastor coerced them into sex. The pastor, Earl Paulk, is being charged with perjury because he told investigators that he'd only had sex with one. (Local coverage here.) So here we are again, back in the zone of abusive spiritual authority. When a pastor's personal agenda is blatantly sinful, as Paulk's allegedly was, believers are devastated. But they also feel manipulated when the agenda is mixed -- when in the midst of pursuing godly goals a pastor doesn't seem to notice his own vanity.

There is almost a sense now that any exercise of authority is abusive, and many believers question the legitimacy of pastoral leadership. The issue was featured in a couple of blogs this past week (unrelated to the Paulk story).

Robbymac offered a rich portrayal of servant leadership and its implications in a tale of two men in dialog about spiritual authority in a pub. The gruff barkeep becomes their model. Says one, "I’d like to suggest that real 'apostles' don't need to trumpet their status or try to get people to agree to be 'under' their authority. They just serve and people recognize their authority based on character and not on their need to have people 'submit' to them." Robbymac's post gave me good ideas to feast on, and it was so evocative that I could almost smell the hops.

Kingdomgrace sparked some lively exchanges about pastoral authority with her usual clarity of expression. Reviewing a chapter in Pagan Christianity (Viola and Barna) about the history of the clerical tradition, Grace surveys the dubious mixture of contemporary ideas of pastoring with the ancient priesthood. She writes,

I don’t believe that one person should be responsible for the equipping of the body, but rather that you will find those equipping gifts among the body. The same is true with discipling, teaching, and mentoring. None of these things should be taken on solely by the leader.

Even if this is clear in your heart as the leader, as long as there is a full-time pastor, it will be an uphill battle to prevent passivity among the congregation regarding who is responsible for ministry.

An uphill battle indeed. In fighting the consumer mentality, a pastor will always face the question, "Why are you trying to get me to do your work?"

The intensity of the comments in response to Grace's post shows how dire the collapse of spiritual authority has become. Participants were not so much questioning the character of pastors, as the legitimacy of having a paid pastor at all. Commenting on the aging evangelical base, one participant named Jerry expressed a sense of crisis many share:

I don’t think people realize how desperate a state the American church is really in. We’re less than 10 years from being exactly in the same state as Europe (barring a medical miracle).

We need Frank Viola’s and George Barna’s (and many others) to really shake this thing up. There’s a disaster pending the likes of which the church world has never seen. All we have to do to get there is hang on to the status quo.

No question, we've got trouble.

Believers have lost a sense of how authority is supposed to work biblically. Those who remember when pastors had a recognized civic role fantasize about the recovery of Christendom, while emergents at times seem frantic in their search for an egalitarian church structure. There are those who want to trust their pastors, many of whom end up getting burned like the eight women in Florida. But there are others who long ago resolved never to trust another pastor again.

We witness a bitter scattering. The question is how to return to the Shepherd.

For me, a purely egalitarian church structure -- no leaders, no followers -- is fast-acting conformism. The herd never tolerates dissent from its stampedes. Furthermore, I believe egalitarian promises are fraudulent: all groups have leaders. The informal ones who lead from charisma tend to be the least accountable.

But the old institutional hierarchies assume a cultural consensus that no longer exists. Christendom, as a cultural force, is on life-support in the U.S. In Europe, it's dead. Pastors are not authority figures anymore. But they're still acting like it.

I am trying to implement several principles as a pastor:

  • Model submission for other believers: submission to the Lord, to the scriptures, and to the other leaders of the church.
  • Lead only from the trust gained by modeling submission. This practice is empowered by the Holy Spirit (e.g. Ephesians 5.15-21).
  • Lead not by casting visions, but by applying narrowly defined biblical principles to the next decision on the congregation's horizon. Put another way, there's no grand plan, just point-to-point navigation.

These principles help me eschew the power game and nurture unity. They do not bring hyper-growth. They do not empower a great career path. They don't even eliminate conflict. But they do harness the forces of relationship, truth, and love to the work of change.

And in the bargain I will see my own soul saved -- an end I pray for the eight women in Florida and for Earl Paulk.

On the Sinfulness of Church Buildings

The storm that slammed California last Friday swept some shingles off our church's roof, leaving the women's restroom drenched. The carpet bubbled and the plaster ceiling wept. This, in addition to the usual leakage. Our building has a tower-like structure on the southeast corner, with a neon cross perched uneasily on top. The neon no longer lights. The tower can be relied upon to leak every year -- a tradition spanning eight decades. At some point, church leaders stopped trying to fix it. Someone just put buckets in the attic that catch most of the water, and no one remembers who.

Confession: The foregoing is bait to tempt readers into tired metaphors of churches' pomposity and ineffectiveness -- especially my emergent readers. (Cue crickets.)

Emergents and evangelicals generally have been disgusted with their churches -- the congregations, not necessarily the buildings. They've been disgusted for years, and have been hunting for the cause of all the dysfunction. From several emergent blogs I've seen, many blame the buildings for the sad condition of the people. Apparently the buildings' very existence is heinous.

This issue came up on a great blog I've been following, kingdomgrace. For a week or so, Grace has been writing intelligently about a book by Frank Viola and George Barna called Pagan Christianity, one of many books analyzing the evangelical mess. Their thesis is “that the church in its contemporary, institutional form has neither a biblical nor a historical right to exist.”

The chapter she treated yesterday (here) dealt with "the history of the church building from the first century through modern times."

Viola and Barna are not positive in their overview. Grace quotes them as saying,

"Somehow we have been taught to feel holier when we are in 'the house of God' and have inherited a pathological dependency upon an edifice to carry out our worship of God. The church building has taught us badly about what church is and what it does."

I can't relate to what Viola and Barna have written there. I was never taught "somehow" to feel holier when in a church building. Feeling holier has been impossible because most of the buildings where I've worshiped have been aggressively ugly.

Nor can I relate to their assertion that "we" have "inherited a pathological dependency upon an edifice." I feel sure that they liked how the phrase sounded, but didn't think about it too carefully. "Must . . . have . . . my . . . edifice!"

And I can't get into the ersatz liberal arts thing of saying, "The church building has taught us badly."

Grace gives more nuanced comments. Church buildings do contribute to such problems as "congregants as spectators," "lack of participation," "consumerist mentality," and "isolation." She writes, "The problem isn't necessarily the building, but rather our imagination and understanding of who we are and what we are called to be apart from the building."

I think she's right on. The design of large churches today deadens the acoustics, coerces the sight, blocks the world outside, and isolates the worshipper. It's a barrier to the restoration of community.

But how do we overcome such barriers?

I see two kinds of dialogue among emergents. One kind is epitomized by Grace. She is probing and measured. Her passion seems expressed by depth rather than bombast. Though I sense that she's seen the troubles of church life, she does not allow her experiences to embitter her writing. Many barriers can be overcome with this kind of dialogue.

The other kind is epitomized by Pagan Christianity. The rhetorical neon doesn't glow and the argumentation has continual leaks.