Am I an Evangelical? Are You?

A few weeks ago, a group of church leaders led by Os Guinness released An Evangelical Manifesto in an effort to explain “who evangelicals are and what they stand for.” The effort was largely motivated by their desire to pry evangelicalism from the grip of the religious right, and the resulting document is quite generous in its definition of evangelical orthodoxy, thought it has been criticized for being too vague. 

Among other things, the document states that “evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.”  It asserts that “Jesus Christ is fully God become fully human” and that salvation comes through grace, not works. Interestingly, nothing is said about inerrancy. 

The manifesto has been criticized by both evangelicals and the press for being too broad. 

Scot McKnight made an interesting point about the subject on his blog.  He claims that an attempt to unite evangelicals beneath one creed will fail because “evangelicalism never has been and never will be uniform in theology…[Evangelicalism] has always been ecumenical for the sake of the gospel.” 

McKnight believes that three groups are currently threatening to hijack evangelicalism:

“1) The Religious Right, which seems to think all evangelicals have the same political views; 2) The Neo-Reformed, who think Calvinism is the only faithful form of evangelicalism; and 3)The Political Progressives, who like the Religious Right think the faithful form of evangelicalism will be politically progressive.” 

I’m not sure An Evangelical Manifesto is an attempt by the third group to redefine evangelicalism by progressive standards. However, it does have the ring of inclusiveness and tolerance…which doesn’t bother me, but might bother other evangelicals. 

I guess over the past few years I’ve become less and less certain about what it means to be an evangelical in the first place. I’ve been wondering: Can I still be an evangelical and vote for a democrat? Can I still be an evangelical and support gay rights? Can I be an evangelical if I prefer the word “authoritative” rather than “inerrant” to describe the Bible? Can I be an evangelical if I have a blog called “Evolving in Monkey Town”? 

I affirm the Nicene Creed and consider myself a follower of Christ…but am I an evangelical? 

Based on An Evangelical Manifesto I think I am. But based on other standards, the ones that get talked about a lot in evangelical circles, I’m not so sure. 

So, what do you think? 

Have you read the manifesto? Do you think it accurately explains evangelicalism? Is it too broad or too narrow?  Do you think you are an evangelical? Why or why not? Do you think I’m an evangelical?

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Pastors + Politics = Problems

As reluctant as I am to admit it, former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura made a good point the other day about pastors and politics. In an interview with Dan Abrams on MSNBC about John McCain’s recent rejection of Rev.John Hagee’s endoresement, Ventura posed the question, “Why aren’t these pastors losing their tax exempt status for engaging in political campaign activity in the first place?” 

(As you may remember, I wrote a post back in March saying that John McCain’s efforts to reach evangelicals by seeking out endorsements from John Hagee and Rod Parsley was a terrible idea and ought to get pounced on by the media.) 

Currently, IRS laws prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one "which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."

So why don’t Hagee and Parsely’s respective churches lose their tax exempt status? Why aren’t they fined or reprimanded for formerly supporting a candidate? Am I missing some loopholes here?

And, on a broader scale, to what extent should churches be involved in politics to begin with? 

I remember a few years ago, several churches in my area got really involved in the Tennessee legislature’s effort to amend the state constitution to include a ban on gay marriage. I didn’t support that measure, and was discouraged to see signs on my church’s lawn proclaiming “Marriage = Man + Woman. Vote Yes on One.” I get a little uncomfortable when my church tells me how I ought to vote. 

Last time I checked, Jesus wasn’t a democrat or a republican. I’ve met a lot of Christians who vote Republican because they feel very strongly that the Bible’s emphasis on the sanctity of life compels them to support pro-life candidates. I totally get that. I’ve met other Christians who vote Democrat because they feel just as strongly that Jesus’ call to minister to the poor, sick, and disenfranchised is best answered by the policies of the Democratic party. I get that too. It seems to me that church leaders who tell parishioners that God wants them to vote a certain way underestimate the diversity of their congregation. 

My prediction is that the Wright/Hagee/Parsley debacles will put an end to candidates actively seeking out endorsements from pastors. Furthermore, with James Dobson’s refusal to back McCain (apparently it’s important to God that the U.S. continue to torture detainees and toughen up on illegal immigration), I think evangelicals are beginning to learn to make political decisions on their own again. It will be fun to see how they choose.

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Book Club Discussion: Doubt as a Necessary Element of Faith

Voltaire once said that “doubt is uncomfortable, certainty ridiculous.” 

As we continue our discussion of Peter Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God, I’d like to explore the role that doubt plays in the faith experience. Having struggled with doubt throughout much of my adulthood, I think it’s important to honestly examine both its positive and negative effects, and to suggest that while doubt can be uncomfortable, it is no more dangerous than absolute certainty.

Central to Rollins’ approach to theology is maintaining a balance between “believing in God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes about God.” (26)

Rollins writes that “this unknowing is to be utterly distinguished from an intellectually lazy ignorance, for it is a type of unknowing which arises not from imprecision but rather from deep reflection and sustained meditation…It is a recognition that negation is embedded within, and permeates, all religious affirmation. It is an acknowledgement that a desert of ignorance exists in the midst of every oasis of understanding…This (approach) is not then some temporary place of uncertainty on the way to spiritual maturity, but rather is something that operates within faith as a type of heat-inducing friction that prevents our liquid images of the divine from cooling and solidifying into idolatrous form.” (26-27) Don't you love that image? 

With this in mind, Rollins concludes that “in contrast to the modern view that religious doubt is something to reject, fear or merely tolerate, doubt not only can be seen as an inevitable aspect of our humanity but also can be celebrated as a vital part of faith.” (33) 

It seems to me that, when used properly, doubt helps prevent the believer from making God into an intellectual idol. Case in point: the Pharisees rejected Jesus primarily because they had already made up their minds about what the Messiah ought to look like, and Jesus didn’t fit the bill. They were studied in Scripture and in Jewish law and tradition, but because they were so convinced they were right, so unwilling to hold their beliefs about God with an open hand, they missed Him in his “distressing disguise.” They missed Him when He was right there in their midst, leading Jesus to proclaim, “I praise You, Father Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way is well-pleasing in your sight.” 

Sometimes when people refer to having a “child-like faith,” they refer to an unquestioning commitment to one’s religious tradition. And yet, when I think of children, I think of their sometimes annoying tendency to ask a bunch of questions. (“Why is the sky blue? Why do people live in houses? Why do I have to go to bed at 9:00? Where do babies come from? Why do I have to ask my parents that last question?” etc.) Perhaps God desires a childlike faith in Him, complete with all the annoying questions, for questions reveal trust and humility. 

I think it’s important to distinguish between doubting God and doubting what one believes about God. While the former can be spiritually destructive (I know, because I’ve been there), the latter enables the believer to encounter God in new and unexpected ways (I’ve been there too.) 

The problem with absolute certainty is that it closes one off to the possibility of new revelation. In fact, it negates the need for faith altogether. Rollins writes, “A faith that only exist in the light of victory and certainty is one which really affirms the self while pretending to affirm Christ…Only a genuine faith can embrace doubt, for such a faith does not act because of a self-interested reason (such as fear of hell or desire for heaven) but acts simply because it must.” (34) 

With this in mind, I think it’s possible to reconcile the necessity doubting one’s theology with James’ warning that “the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.”

In this passage, James is talking about doubt in the context of praying for wisdom, in the context of action. He says that “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting.”

So James is urging his readers to ask God to give them wisdom for enduring the trials in their lives, with the expectation that God will in fact do so. He is asking them to take a step of faith, to make a commitment to prayer without proof or an absolute guarantee that things will work out. He is asking that they show faith through their actions. 

In the end, I would conclude that doubt is not the opposite of faith. Disobedience is the opposite of faith. Furthemore, certainty is not a sign of faith, but a sign of idolatry because certainty requires no faith. What do you think?

One of my favorite poems of all time is Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.” Written over a 17-year period, the lengthy piece describes Tennyson’s struggle with doubt, brought on by the death of a close friend as well as discoveries concerning evolution and science. (I love how the poem addresses doubt from both emotional and intellectual angles.) One of the most quoted lines of the poem is, “there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in all the creeds.” 

However, my favorite lines, the ones that to me best describe the painful experience of doubt (both doubting theology and doubting God Himself), come at the end of the poem. I like that for Tennyson, resolution comes, not from reason or proof or certainty, but from faith. 

    That which we dare invoke to bless,
    Our dearest faith, our ghastliest doubt; 
    He, They, One, All, within, without, 
    The power in darkness whom we guess-

    I found Him not in world or sun
    Or eagle's wing, or insect  eye 
    Nor through the questions men may try
    The petty cobwebs we have spun.

    If e’eer when faith had fallen asleep 
    I heard a voice ‘believe no more,’ 
    And heard an ever-breaking shore 
    That tumble din the godless deep, 

    A warmth within the breast would melt 
    The freezing reason’s colder part, 
    And like a man in wrath the heart 
    Stood up and answers, ‘ I have felt.’ 

    No, like a child in doubt and fear:
    But that blind clamor made me wise;
    Then was I as a child that cries,
    But crying knows his father near; 

    And what I am beheld again
    What is, and no man understands;
    And out of darkness came the hands
    That reach through nature, molding men.

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Maturing in Ape Village: Why I Need Your Help With A Title

Sometimes publishers like to see a alternate titles for a book before signing off on it, so I’ve been rummaging my brain for ideas that might adequately replace “Evolving in Monkey Town.” After consulting the thesaurus, my husband Dan jokingly suggested “Maturing in Ape Village.” So, to put it mildly, I need some help!

At about 2 a.m. this morning, after I’d exhausted poor Emily Dickinson in search of a smart-sounding poetic reference, I thought, who better to ask than the folks who read my blog. They are smart people. They are in-tune with my thoughts and feelings. They apparently have nothing better to do. (I kid.) 

If you haven’t already, feel free to read over the summary in the “Rachel’s Book” section of the site. (Shameless promotion is also something publishers like to see.) 

I want a title that communicates: 

1) The spiritual journey from certainty to faith…from knowing the answers to asking the questions…from fundamentalism to theological curiosity…etc.

2) The importance of asking questions/ the troubling experience of doubt

3)  A reference to fundamentalism and/or the apologetics-driven Christian sub-culture.

4) Evolution as a metaphor for the ability of believers (both collectively and individually) to adapt to cultural change.

At its heart, the book is a spiritual memoir, so the title needs to have the ring of other spiritual memoirs. I think of “Traveling Mercies,” “Blue Like Jazz,” “Girl Meets God,” etc.  Here are some ideas I’ve jotted down for the title and subtitle: 

- The Secret Skeptic: When A Girl Who Knew All the Answers Started Asking Questions

- Somewhere In Between: The Journey from Certainty to Faith 

- Totally Uncommitted: A Fundamentalist’s Journey from Certainty through Doubt to  Faith  (based on Herbert Butterfield’s quote “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted”) 

- Thumper: Confessions of a Recovering Bible-Beater  (based on a former nickname of mine) 

- Take No Bag for the Journey: Leaving Certainty Behind on the Path to Spiritual Authenticity (based on Matthew 10:10) 

- Well Roars the Storm: Rejecting Certainty, Surviving Doubt, Embracing Faith (based on Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”)

- A Fitter Faith: Surviving Doubt, Adapting to Change, Evolving into a New Creation 

- Yes. No. Maybe. An Unfinished Journey from Certainty through Doubt to Faith

Let me know if you have any other ideas. I’m feeling a bit desperate, probably over-thinking this. If you come up with the title that sticks I’ll acknowledge you in the “Special Thanks” section….You’ll be famous among the fifteen people who buy the book…and my mom, who will have bought 10,000 copies for herself. 

Thanks!

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Gays, Buddhists, and Scientists: Will Evangelicals Change Their Minds?

In the 16th century, John Calvin argued on theological grounds that anyone who believed that the earth moved in space was “motivated by a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding; possessed by the devil.” *  

In the 17th century, both Catholics and Protestants systematically executed Anabaptists for holding to the “heresy” that a confession of faith should precede baptism. 

Here in America, the original Southern Baptist Convention was organized, in part, because Baptists in the South did not want to be told from Baptists in the North that owning slaves was wrong. 

In the 60s, many evangelicals used Scripture to support racial segregation. 

Oops. Hindsight is 20/20, huh? 

I bring up these historical embarrassments, not to shame the Church or criticize the many godly people who supported them, but to pose a question: What’s next? What are the issues facing the Church today that may come back to haunt us in the future? 

Every now and then I wonder what convictions I might have held had I lived in my hometown of Dayton, Tennessee just five, ten, or fifteen decades ago. Would I have used Scripture to defend my right to own slaves? Would I have remained silent as the Cherokees stumbled by my house on the Trail of Tears? We Christians must be careful not to imitate the Pharisees, who bragged that had they lived during the time of the prophets they would not have shed the blood of innocent men, but who then proceeded to crucify Jesus and persecute his disciples (Matthew 23:30-34). Our confidence that we are right about everything is often our downfall. 

So what will be the hot issues for our generation? What will we be debating over the next five, ten, or twenty years? 

I don’t know for sure, but I have some guesses. Let me know what you think. 

1) Homosexuality: This week’s California ruling regarding gay marriage is sure to spark another round of arguments between conservative evangelicals and the gay community. It’s too bad. I’m really starting to get weary of all the hateful rhetoric coming from conservative Christians, rhetoric that only serves to alienate gays from the church. 

If I were a betting woman, I would put money on the guess that in less than ten years, evangelicals will be blushing at some of James Dobson’s comments regarding homosexuality. I think that as more people come out and as more progress is made in identifying possible genetic influences in sexual orientation, evangelicals will have to back-track a bit. I also anticipate that in the coming years, theologians will re-approach those biblical texts used to condemn homosexuality and perhaps present evangelicals with some optional interpretations. 

2) Religious Pluralism: As our world becomes more interconnected, I think young evangelicals in particular will grow hungry for fresh approaches to religious pluralism, and will begin to seek out alternatives to traditional exclusivism. The Catholic Church has taken the lead on this issue with the Second Vatican Council, and I expect evangelicals will follow. It’s hard to foresee any “official” changes in doctrine, considering the complexity of the issue, but I expect the dialog will open up a bit in this area. 

3) Evolution: As scientific evidence supporting evolutionary theory continues to become more widely accepted, I think conservative evangelicals will at least have to concede the point that it is possible for a  person to believe in both and old earth and a loving God, that “Christian evolutionist” is not an oxymoron. I have a feeling that the evolution debate might be our generation’s Galilean controversy, which is why I am wary of making sweeping pronouncements about God being on one side or the other. I’m hoping that this issue will spark a healthy conversation about whether should treat the Bible as a science textbook or a spiritual guidebook. 

So, what do you think? What will be the hot-button issues of our time? In what ways do you expect evangelicals might change their minds?

(I also thought about mentioning the role of women in the church, changes in the political affiliations of young evangelicals, and a renewed interest in humanitarian aide and world poverty. What do you think about those issues?)

-- 

Citation:* Sermon No. 8 on 1st Corinthians, cited in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma, Oxford University Press, 1988, A. 72

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