Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and the Palin/Bryan Factor

A few weeks ago, just when I’d decided I’d had enough of lipstick, pigs, and the feigned outrage of the suddenly feminist Republican Party, I picked up the local newspaper to read: “Dayton invites Sarah Palin to Speak.”

“Ahhhh! She’s everywhere!” I screamed. I’d already glanced through two Newsweek cover stories about her, read a lengthy Time piece, suffered through seemingly endless TV news coverage…and now here she was on the front page of the Dayton Herald.

 (This was, of course, before the financial crisis dramatically re-focused the nation’s attention.)

As I read through the article, I noticed that, for the third time that week, the vice presidential candidate had been compared to none other than William Jennings Bryan.

Local Republican Randall McGinnis told the Herald, “[Dayton] is essentially the Bible Belt. Palin is going to be the candidate of evangelicals, so what better place to speak than on the steps of the Rhea County Courthouse where William Jennings Bryan so eloquently defended evangelical Christianity in 1925?”

McGinnis’ statement was similar to one made by journalist Michael Gerson in the September 29 edition of Newsweek. In an article entitled “Starbucks Does Not Equal Savvy,” Gerson compares Palin’s small-town values and religiously-charged rhetoric to that of Bryan, claiming that “the closest I have ever come to witnessing a Bryan moment was Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention—the triumph of another backwoods, highly-religious populist. Palin praised the honesty and sincerity of small towns; pressed her credentials as a hockey mom, member of the PTA and small-town mayor; and rallied against the ‘Washington elite,’ ‘power brokers’ and (a little closer to home) ‘reporters and commentators.’ If hats had been in style, they would have been thrown.’”

There are more than a few ironies surrounding this comparison. The most obvious are that: 1) William Jennings Bryan was a democrat, 2) Bryan ran for president three times and lost, and 3) Bryan’s defense of the Christian faith during Dayton’s famous Scopes Trial was, by all objective accounts, less than eloquent.

However, my visceral reaction to the Herald News article was negative, not because of these ironies, but because of the use of the term “evangelical.”

McGinnis said something that has become increasingly apparent over the last several weeks: “Palin is the candidate of evangelicals.”

This election has just about convinced me that I must not be an evangelical after all. Polls show that evangelicals overwhelmingly support John McCain and Sarah Palin. I don’t. Whenever a pastor is called on by the media to present the “evangelical position” regarding anything from gay marriage to tax codes to global warming, I find myself passionately disagreeing. The term “evangelical” has taken on an extremely negative connotation for me, even though I grew up with that religious tradition and still identify with it in many ways.

It all came together late last week, when I read this comment by Scot McKnight on his fantastic blog:

"in the 1920s and 1930s many American evangelicals fought the rise of liberal, critical thought and rallied around the term ‘fundamentalism.’ That term referred to a steadfast commitment to some basics that could not be surrendered. At the time, fundamentalism was a decent and useful word. In time, though, the term was worn out by the abusive use of that term by its critics. So, Carl Henry stood up in the 50s and 60s and said something had to be done, and out of his famous book ‘Uneasy Conscience’ arose a new movement: ‘evangelicalism.’ Fundamentalism at the time called it ‘neo-evangelism’ and that was no compliment. But the movement survived the early attempts to smear it….Evangelicalism lasted--until the 80s and 90s—and now the term works the way ‘fundamentalist’ worked: the term today can hardly be used without having to explain yourself.”

So perhaps Sarah Palin is to evangelicalism what William Jennings Bryan was to fundamentalism. Perhaps she represents the last stand of a struggling, increasingly irrelevant movement.

I’m wondering if there are more Christians like me out there, who are tired of being associated with evangelicalism, and who are looking for a new term to describe their religious affiliation.

So here’s the question: Do you think that “evangelicalism” is beginning to take on the same negative connotation as “fundamentalism”? Also, what do you think of the Palin/Bryan comparison?

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My Book is Getting Published!

This week I signed a contract with Zondervan for the publication of my first book.  It’s a spiritual memoir of sorts that will touch on a lot of the subjects we discuss together here. There is no release date yet, as I’ve still got quite a bit of writing to do, but you can expect to see it on shelves within twelve to eighteen months. 

I can’t tell you how thankful I am for this opportunity. Publishing a book is something I’ve wanted to do since childhood, and I’ve been working really hard toward this goal for several years now.  

I should mention that I could never have reached this point without the support, encouragement, (and persistent prodding) of my husband Dan.  I’m also indebted to my agent, Rachelle Gardner, and to my friend Christian George.

The blog will continue to be an important platform for presenting some of my ideas and generating feedback. I expect to post more regularly, and will continue to add new features as well as updates on the progress of the book. More than ever, I welcome the diversity of perspectives that make this forum so unique, and encourage you to keep commenting and corresponding.

I’ve gotten so many e-mails over the past few months from readers who have struggled with doubts about their faith or who have embarked on spiritual journeys that have brought them to places they never expected to be. Many feel that they’ve found a little home here on the blog, and I hope that it remains a refreshing respite for fellow travelers.

If you haven’t already, please feel free to sign up for my newsletter, which will keep you posted on book news and public appearances.

Please continue to stay in touch! You cannot know how important your contributions have become to shaping the form and content of this book. Somewhere along the way, your stories have become an indelible part of mine.

Thanks for reading!

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Ten Things I'm Not "Ready to Give an Answer" About

As I mentioned in the last post, those of us raised in the conservative evangelical subculture during the apologetics movement of the 80s and 90s grew up with the charge to “always be ready to give an answer” in defense of the Christian faith. For many of us, fighting the good fight of faith meant being prepared to debate the skeptics. It meant having intelligent and ready answers to questions concerning the Problem of Evil, religious pluralism, biblical inerrancy, evolutionary theory, and postmodern relativism.

I don’t know about you, but by the time I graduated from my conservative Christian college, I was pretty confident that I knew exactly what atheists and humanists and Buddhist believed… without ever having met any atheists or humanists or Buddhists in person.  I was so sure that I could effectively dismantled and humiliate any opposing worldviews that it really unnerved when I began encountering things in my young adulthood that made me suddenly question my  long-held beliefs.

From the AIDS orphan I held in my arms in India, to the passages of Scripture that seemed to condone genocide, to the persuasiveness of biology textbooks, to my encounters with people of other faiths—my interactions with the world left me wondering if rehearsed answers would be enough to satisfy my doubts about my faith.

As I’ve spent the past few years struggling with doubt and grasping for faith, I’ve found that being ready with an answer does not do justice to the seriousness of questions like, why does God allow innocent children to starve to death? or how does God judge Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims? or does the Bible condone slavery and the subjugation of women? This is especially true when such questions are being asked by those who are suffering, those whose lives are significantly impacted by the answers.  

I’ve come to believe that the key to the survival of my faith has been a willingness to say, “I don’t know”—both to myself and to others who are asking. Having been taught by apologists and theologians that such a response represents weakness, I am continually surprised by how much strength and hope I find in embracing it.

It’s important to note that when Peter first penned the words “always be ready with an answer,” he was writing to the persecuted church.

“Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” he writes. “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

This isn’t advice for a debate team. It’s advice for martyrs! Peter is encouraging his readers to look into the eyes of their persecutors with love and compassion, a disarming approach that is bound to generate some questions.  This passage isn’t about fearlessly defending a set of propositions. It’s about fearlessly defending hope—a wild, bewitching, and reckless thing that cannot be systematized or charted or rationally explained.

With this in mind, I’ve come to believe that “I don’t know” is  an appropriate response to tough questions, a response that may (at times) make a better case for hope than a five-point lecture ever could.

So here are ten things I don’t know about God, faith, and religion—ten things I’m not exactly “ready to give an answer” about. (In some cases, I have included links to past posts which explore the issues further.) Now, I’m pretty open-minded about this stuff, so feel free to post your own responses and ideas. (Perhaps you can convince me of your position!) Also, you may want to add a few “I don’t knows” of your own. In my experience, admitting a lack of certainty can be a strangely liberating and faith-building experience. What better place to do it than on someone else's blog!

1.  I don’t know where evil originated or why God allows so much suffering in the world.

2. I don’t know if I believe in “just war.” (More on August 11 post.)

3. I don’t know which Bible stories ought to be treated as historically accurate, scientifically-provable accounts of fact and which stories are meant to be metaphorical. I’m beginning to believe that it might not matter, that these stories can transform my life whether or not they refer to literal days, literal fruit trees, or literal floods.

4. I don’t know which political party best represents Christian values. (More on August 18 and August 25 posts.)

5. I don’t know if I am an evangelical.

6. I don’t know how God will ultimately judge between good and evil. In other words, I don’t know who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. (More on May 1 and May 3 posts.)

7. I don’t know the degree to which God is present in religious systems.

8. I don’t know why people are gay, or if being gay is a sin. (More on July 28 post.)

9. I don’t know which Church tradition best represents the teachings of Jesus Christ.

10. I don’t know why Christians (including myself) so often get it wrong when we are supposed to have direct access to absolute truth. (I’m thinking of the Crusades, the Inquisition, geocentricism, the persecution of the Anabaptists, the use of Scripture to defend slave ownership and segregation, young earth creationism, etc.)

Of course there are more…but I think this is enough for today!

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Book Club Discussion: Are Apologists Closer to God?

As we continue our discussion of Peter Rollins’ The Fidelity of Betrayal, we get into some philosophically heady material, which takes some time to digest. However, I am convinced that Rollins' approach is one that has the potential to not only change how we think about our faith,  but also how we interact with it in our lives. I'm not sure that I agree with all of his conclusions, but this has definitely been a worthwhile read!

In Chapters 4 and 5, Rollins deconstructs the notion that Christianity is a set of propositional statements that render God present as an object for contemplation or analysis. Using examples from mythology, Scripture, theology, and philosophy, Rollins shows how mankind has long been interested in speaking of God in these terms, to the point that “instead of thinking about our understanding of God as a poetic utterance arising from an encounter with God, it was thought that our understanding of God directly matched up with the very nature of God. While the former approach argues that our understanding is an acknowledged misunderstanding that arises in the aftermath of God, the later approach argues that these words can render God rationally manifest.” (p. 79)

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the modern Church. Heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and the philosophical tradition of Logical Positivism (the idea that if something is not able to be judged true or false, then we are rationally compelled to ignore it as irrelevant), much of the modern Church has bought into the belief that the truth of Christianity should be treated like any other set of factual claims, and that people of faith can somehow rationally observe ultimate truth with a level of personal detachment and objectivity.

Those of us who grew up during the apologetics movement of the 80s and 90s know all about this. We read Josh McDowell and Norm Geisler and Lee Strobel. We knew about the “evidence that demands a verdict.” For many of us, fighting the good fight of faith meant proving to skeptics that young earth creationism was scientifically sound, that the Battle of Jericho was an historical fact, and that believing in God was a perfectly rational and reasonable thing to do. 

According to Rollins, this approach “presupposes that the truth of faith is on the same level as scientific statements. In philosophical terms, one would say that the creationist is claiming the same ontological status for both the claims of science and the claims of faith.” (89)

“Thus the truth affirmed by Christianity ends up being treated like any other set of factual claims, claims that are provisional and open to being proven wrong. Even if one believes that the various claims within the Bible are wholly accurate, it is always possible that a new discovery in archeology, history, or biblical scholarship will overturn the current body of evidence. Apologetics, in its attempt to defend the factual claims of the Bible through the use of reason, thus implicitly affirms the very philosophical outlook that undermines its own project, placing the truth of Christianity in the realm of rational reflection and thus into the realm of reasonable doubt and provisionality.” (93)

A devout student of apologetics myself, I spent years and years secretly fearing that my faith would fall apart if scientific evidence compelled me to believe evolutionary theory or if the historical accuracy of a biblical account was reasonably questioned. I’d placed my faith in a set of propositional truth claims that could be deemed true or false based on measurements and evidence and analysis and reason.  So when I felt I could no longer reasonably hold to a creationist perspective, when I found myself questioning the concept of Biblical inerrancy, I feared I would have no choice but to walk away from Christianity altogether.

And I’m not alone. I’ve recently reconnected with a lot of old friends who, like me, grew up with the constant reminder that Christians are to “always be ready with an answer” in defense of the rationality of faith.  But when these friends began to study science or history or literature or philosophy or whatever, they began having questions of their own…questions that didn’t have easy, Sunday-school answers.  Having been taught that the Christian faith is held together by a set of propositional truths and fact-claims, they found that removing one truth (or fact) was enough to make the whole thing collapse. Faith was a house of cards. While some of my friends have simply changed the way they think about their faith, others have given it up altogether.

Of course, Rollins advocates changing the way we think about faith, (which we will discuss more exhaustively in our next discussion). For him, the idea that faith can be observed with a level of personal detachment and objectivity represents a misunderstanding of the nature of faith.

“Such an approach seems foreign to the unconditional commitment that is demanded of authentic believers,” he writes, “a commitment that is described by the apostle Paul as one that involves becoming a living sacrifice. Distancing oneself from one’s faith asks that believers engage with the deepest, most intimate, most personal, and most pressing issue in their lives in the guise of a detached, disinterested observer. Yet, approaching the truth affirmed by Christianity as some abstract, objective assertion to be tested, simply demonstrates that the questioner is approaching this query as a problem to be pondered, dissected, and solved, rather than a mystery to inhabit and be transformed by.” (90)

Rollins argues that “while approaching things in the world as objects to study and understand is vital for the development of technology, our faith cannot be treated as a detached object without fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of faith itself. The life of faith cannot be treated in the way we approach objects such as computers (which become more understandable the more we dissect and explore them).” (91)

This approach, writes Rollins, effectively gives the truth affirmed by Christianity over to the academic. “Philosophers can ask whether these claims are logically sound, historians can ponder the likelihood of certain scriptural claims, sociologists can ask whether Christian truth claims play a functional role in society, psychologists can explore whether these truth claims are only wish fulfillments, and theologians can contemplate the relationship  of these truths to Christian doctrines and creeds.” (91)

Essentially, true Christianity belongs to those who can dissect it, study it, and reflect upon it. What’s worse, “the knowledge of religious truth can thus be gained and maintained outside of a transfigured life,” because “faith is reduced to the idea of a theoretical system divorced from one’s practice.”

Indeed, growing up in the conservative evangelical subculture, I was pretty convinced that if I could just read enough books, I could get closer to understanding God. If I could only find answers to all of my questions, if I could put all the pieces together, if I could learn more about science and history and theology and philosophy, I would believe without doubt, and I would win people to Christ.  I held theologians and apologists in the highest regard, and I attended a Christian college in an effort get all my facts straight regarding a biblical worldview. 

And yet, as I’ve grown up, I’ve found that theologians and apologist do not exactly have a lock on fruitful Christian living. I’ve met many theologians who are humble, and kind, and generous. I’ve met others who are arrogant, and judgmental, and greedy. If God is an object (like a computer) that can be more fully understood by close examination and study, then shouldn't apologists and theologians be closer to God than the rest of us? If they are closer to God, shouldn't they more consistently show God's love (1 John 4:7-8)? Furthermore, if the truth of Christianity is tied up with academia, then why have some of the most amazing Christians I’ve met been completely illiterate. (I’m thinking of the Christian widows I met in India. Some of them could not read the Bible, and yet they more faithfully followed the teachings of Jesus than any Bible expert I’ve ever met. )

When the Pharisees showed little interest in following Him, Jesus proclaimed, “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 was well-pleasing in Your sight.” (Matthew 11:25-26)

Perhaps the truest part of Christianity can be accessed by all, not just experts in theology and apologetics. 

Next week, we will discuss Rollins’ alternative, one that emphasizes faith as a response to a transformative event, as opposed to faith as belief in a set of propositional truths.

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Following Jesus and Maintaining Your Mental Health

So after years of teaching myself to say “no,” I've been experimenting with “yes” again. I know, I know. I've read Cloud and Townsend.  I am aware that it is important to maintain boundaries in one’s life. I know that I can’t do it all, and that if I spread myself too thin trying to meet everyone else’s needs, I’ll be drained of emotional energy, rendered incapable of giving and receiving love, devoid of all sense of self, etc.

And yet, “yes” is becoming more and more of an option these days.

It all started when I confidently announced to friends and family that I would like to be referred to as a “follower of Jesus Christ” instead of an “evangelical Christian.” (I think perhaps I’d been watching election-year poll results at the time.) This was all well and good until I started re-reading the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. (I figured that if I was going to say I followed Jesus, I ought to adhere to His teachings.) Well, as it turns out, His teachings are nuts.

Jesus, who clearly never read a self-help book, said this:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

It seems to me that Jesus not only advocates saying “yes,” he advocates saying, “yes, and what else can I do?”

This poses a particular challenge to my husband and me. Because we both work from home, it is often assumed that we are either a) unemployed and poor, or b) rich and bored. People under the impression that we suffer from option “a” generally leave us alone and pray we will find respectable occupations. Those under the impression that we enjoy the perks of option “b” ask us for stuff. Sometimes it’s time. Sometimes it’s money.

Now, I am absolutely convinced that saying “yes” to everything can be unhealthy. I’ve seen families torn apart because of over-commitments to ministries. I’ve seen godly people lose their spark and personality and love for the Lord because they tried to keep everyone happy. I’ve experienced first-hand the emotional exhaustion that accompanies unwarranted guilt and pressure, and I know what it is like to need some alone time to re-charge and re-focus.

But I am also convinced that Jesus calls us to live radically set-apart lives, that we are to be known throughout the world by our love for one another and for our care of the poor and suffering. This, I believe, involves a lot more than simply being nice and playing by the rules.  It involves opening our homes, giving liberally, meeting needs, sharing our things, doing favors, making sacrifices, listening, helping, cooking, cleaning, praying, hugging, and maybe even saying “yes” when we don’t really want to.

So how do we reconcile these two positions?

I have a hard time with this, especially after years of fine-tuning my ability to make priorities, stand up for myself, and say “no” when something requires more time, money, or emotional energy than I feel I have to give. For example, I find it pretty easy to send money to India, where I know indigenous missionaries living on about two dollars a day. It’s much more difficult, however, for me to say “yes” when I am asked to support ministries I’m not so crazy about, or missionaries that might not share my values or priorities. I’m happy to write articles and give presentations about the HIV/AIDS crisis, but I hesitate when asked to do menial tasks like feed my neighbor’s dog or babysit for a few hours.  I struggle to say “yes” when friends need help recovering from irresponsible decisions. I struggle to say “yes” when I know my sacrifice will go unappreciated. I struggle to say “yes” when a task doesn’t line up with my gifts or interests. I have a hard time giving when I suspect that I won’t get anything in return.

I am reminded of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. He’s such a pushover!  When Homer asks to borrow a lawnmower or hedge trimmer or bike, Ned gives without hesitancy, knowing there’s a really good chance he’ll never get his stuff back.  Some have complained about how Christians are portrayed on the show, but I think that Ned (like all the characters) represents the best and the worst of his type. When it comes to neighborliness and giving without expecting a return, Ned (imperfectly) represents the teachings of Jesus.

Of course, who can forget the episode where Ned finally goes crazy and leaves town? So how do we give like Ned without suppressing like Ned?

I used to think that it was all a matter of balance, that I could follow Jesus and maintain a comfortable emotional lifestyle at the same time. I’m not so sure anymore. Jesus wasn’t necessarily into the whole balance thing. He got crucified on a cross, you know. And He asks that we be willing to suffer the same fate, which isn’t exactly a commitment to fortifying our personal boundaries.

Giving isn’t really giving unless there is some sacrifice involved. Perhaps following Jesus requires a willingness to be uncomfortable now and then, to say “yes, what else can I do?” even when it violates our sense of well-being.

What do you think? Is it possible to maintain boundaries and still follow Jesus? How do you decide when to say “yes” and when to say “no”?

[P.S. I’m running behind again, and will post our next book club discussion on Wednesday. ]

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